Academic journal article Global Governance

Transnational Civil Society and the National Identity Question in East Asia

Academic journal article Global Governance

Transnational Civil Society and the National Identity Question in East Asia

Article excerpt

The institutions of civil society play diverse roles in developing and maintaining democracy--that is, the process of democratization--and perform different functions in relation to the national identity/boundary question. (1) A growing literature testifies to the emerging importance of civil society in defining the boundaries of political communities, (2) such that the participation by ordinary people and the institutions of civil society in defining these boundaries give rise to a democratic approach to the national identity/boundary issue and new forms of associated global governance. In this article, I attempt to develop a transnational civil society approach to studying the range of interactions that occur across national borders in the context of national identity politics. (3) Specifically, I consider the relevance of the transnational civil society approach to the national identity question in East Asia. In so doing, I examine the role international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) play in defining the boundaries of political communities and empowering small ethnic groups in the region to pursue their cause for self-determination. To this end, in seeking to explain why INGOs are able to exert influence on this issue, I outline the necessary conditions for effective INGOs and the existing problems associated with them.

For the purposes of this article, INGOs are defined not only as subjects of international law, but also as active participants in the shaping of such law. In other words, they are understood as shapers of international opinion and autonomous actors in competition with states. Their membership is international and their activities take place across national borders. (4) The national identity/boundary problem refers to the phenomenon whereby certain sections of a national population, who do not identify with the nation-state in which they live, endeavor to create their own political identity by reconstructing cultural and ethnic identities. It also refers to a unification process whereby two separate states or political entities express a desire to merge on the basis of shared cultural identity or history. In addition, this problem incorporates the issue of control over territories and resources and the redrawing of national boundaries.

Some Basic Information About INGOs

Tables 1 and 2 denote the existence of a large number of INGOs and offer a breakdown of their different types. Precisely, Table 1 shows that of the total number of INGOs, 37 are federations of international organizations, which constitute only 0.58 percent; 475 are universal membership organizations, making up 7.47 percent; and 4,782 are regionally oriented membership organizations, constituting the majority of 75.23 percent. It should be noted that a further 3,834 organizations are dissolved or apparently inactive. These figures also demonstrate that the transnational activities of INGOs are more or less geographically limited to one region of the world. (5)

Among the selected countries in Table 3, the United States has the highest participation rate in categories A, B and C, whereas the UK has the largest number in category D. The East Asian countries with the exception of Japan are clearly much less involved in INGO activity. In Table 4, a majority of INGOs in categories B and C are headquartered in the United States, whereas the UK ranks number one as a host country for categories A and D. We can conclude from this that the primary influence on INGOs involved in East Asia is predominantly Western in orientation.

INGOs focus especially on human rights, women's rights, environmental concerns, development, and ethnic issues (see Table 5). However, in East Asia, it is clear that INGOs are also involved in the politics of national identity. There are two main groups of such organizations. Although the first group does not openly and directly support independence and secessionism, its concern with human rights and humanitarian issues has had an impact on the politics of national identity. …

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