Bounding the Mekong: The Asian Development Bank, China, and Thailand

By Chachavalpongpun, Pavin | Journal of Southeast Asian Economies, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Bounding the Mekong: The Asian Development Bank, China, and Thailand


Chachavalpongpun, Pavin, Journal of Southeast Asian Economies


DOI: 10.1355/ae28-lg Bounding the Mekong: The Asian Development Bank, China, and Thailand. By Jim Glassman. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2010. Pp. 208.

Jim Glassman has written a well researched book on the economic, political and socio-cultural integration of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS). Since the GMS entered into the realm of useful knowledge in 1992, a series of studies have been conducted in regards to the evolution of this subregion, most of which focus mainly on the success of cooperation among members of the GMS, the progress of its regionalization and how the GMS has slotted in so perfectly with the ongoing trend of globalization. The study by Glassman, however, represents a major departure from the available literatures on the Mekong subregion.

Glassman's objective is ambitious. He sets out to debunk the myth of the GMS as being calculatingly constructed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). To the general understanding of many, the GMS is seen as another kind of representative of regionalization. In reality, unlike other regional organizations of the world, such as the European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which were born out of governments' initiatives that intended to bring institutional coherence to their transnational processes, the GMS was arbitrarily "manufactured" by numerous publications of one specific institution - the ADB - to which member countries owe the definition of the GMS.

Divided into seven chapters, the book begins with how to best approach the GMS. Glassman lays out an argument that includes recognition of the importance of institutions that regulate regionalization and discursive processes that produce the object of regulation and knowledge about it (p. 15). His argument is best explicated in Chapter 3, while the author deals with the manufacturing process of the GMS. Terms like "strengthening GMS cooperation for economic growth and mutual benefit" and "the river links six countries", according to Glassman, are misguided simply because they inaccurately portray the dynamics of the actual regionalization processes that are taking place in the GMS. Glassman boldly argues that rather than being based in complementarities and the spatial proximity of countries within the GMS, the GMS integration process is indeed driven by more global, but highly uneven, capitalist investment, production, and trade, leading less to the integration of the GMS per se than to the integration of GMS countries into a much larger East Asian regional system (itself embedded in broader global processes), albeit in quite differential - and differentially advantageous - ways (p. 37).

In other words, what has been the driving force behind the GMS is neither the comparative advantage nor naturally existing proximity as often claimed by the ADB, but rather competitive profit seeking by different investors, inside and outside the subregion, who are in search of exploiting economic benefits, such as cheap labour and natural resources, offered by countries of the GMS. Thus, the notion of a win-win situation and mutual benefit gained from the cooperation through the GMS is at times illusory and fails to reflect the realities in the Mekong subregion. It also proffers false hope for poorer nations participating in the GMS of a certain degree of fairness. Glassman points out that while various opportunities are emerging for smaller players to play roles in regionalization, the opportunities are not necessarily equitable or winwin; and in some cases particular groups of less empowered actors may be seen as definite "losers" in the process (p. …

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