Transnational Asia and the Challenge of Globalization

Editorial Statement

Sonia Ryang & Richard J. Smith


We live in an era of unprecedented globalization, an age in which, to a degree and at a speed never previously imagined, people are traveling, moving, and relocating across national borders; goods are being circulated, sold, and bought in markets that know no national boundaries; and technologies, knowledge, and belief systems are transmitted from coast to coast and from continent to continent, regardless of national borders. Beneath and behind this intense worldwide movement and circulation of human beings, ideas, technologies, and goods, lie several important questions: What are the driving forces and consequences of globalization? How is Asia situated in this globalizing milieu? How can we conduct comparative and critical research in both contemporary and historical settings in this new environment? As we launch this inaugural issue of Transnational Asia: An Interdisciplinary Online Journal, such questions are uppermost in our minds.



Globalization is not simply a contemporary phenomenon, and it does not simply involve the movement of goods and human beings or the sharing of scientific or technological expertise. It also stems from and constitutes a wide a range of historical events, some predictable and others unexpected, that have connected disparate parts of the world with unprecedented and exponentially increasing levels of intensity over time. One such event is war. Since ancient times, wars of invasion have disrupted and re-shaped ethnic borders and social boundaries, if not necessarily national-state boundaries. But today’s warfare, as a number of commentators have observed, has become ever more complex. Two such commentators, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, argue, for example,  in Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004) that war has come to adopt a form of rule that is “aimed not only at controlling the population but producing and reproducing all aspects of social life” (Hardt and Negri 2004: 13). Ever since the US embarked on its “war against terror” in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (2001), following up with its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, the kind of war that we have gotten accustomed to today seems to exist in an indefinite form and with indeterminate limits, involving not only new-style military weapons, including drones, but also various measures aimed at maintaining control over internal and domestic populations, including indiscriminate surveillance, which results in a continual blurring of the line between friend and enemy. As Hardt and Negri assert, “[W]ar has passed from the final element of the sequences of power […] to the first and primary element, the foundation of politics itself” (Hardt and Negri 2004: 21). As such, war has become a part of normal life.

Warfare in modern Asia, as in many other areas of the post-colonial world, has been essentially unremitting— owing in part to ill-considered policies undertaken by the former colonial powers and also to the great power rivalries that culminated in the Cold War. Exacerbating the situation has been a long list of dictators and military governments in many parts of postwar Asia. From India to Vietnam and from Indonesia to Korea, the two rival superpowers—the United States and Russia—and their allies have steadily expanded their respective levels of military involvement.  Militarization, conflicts, and atrocities in Asia continued well into the 1980s—for example, in India after partition (1947), the Korean War (1950-1953), the Vietnam War (1961-1973), the ongoing internal conflict in Burma, the separation of Taiwan from China after 1949, the US military occupation of Okinawa (both before and subsequent to the return of the island group to Japanese administration in 1972), massacres in Indonesia (e.g., 1965-1966), Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge (1975-1978), the Bangladesh Independence War (1971), uprisings and massacres in Thailand (1973-1976), the Philippines under martial law (1972-1981), South Korea under its military dictatorship (1963-1987), and China during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

In short, many parts of Asia have witnessed decades of violence and instability—civil wars, wars of independence, coups d’état, and military dictatorships—in which civilian populations have been subjected to genocide, massacre, ethnocide, mass rape, mass imprisonment, systematic torture, house arrest, ideological oppression, mass murder, and mass starvation through the application of erroneous policies. Thus, one might assert that in Asia, as in many other parts of the world, warfare and the violent elimination of enemies (both internal and external) have become, in a certain sense, “normalized”—and all of this well before the US declaration of war against terror in 2001. Nonetheless, the global circulation of radical ideas through new media, new technologies of global surveillance, and global access to weapons of all sorts, from drones to WMD, affect ever-wider swaths of population in ever-more threatening ways.  



In close connection to globalized warfare is an unprecedented dominance of capitalism worldwide. While it is true that, historically, wealth has tended to be concentrated in the hands of a minority of rulers and elites, modernity’s awakening of subjecthood and self-directed decision-making has transformed the multitude into a thinking, resisting, and acting entity composed of individuals and groups (e.g., Giddens 1990, 1991). And with the rise of this new, modern subjecthood—the product of improved educational systems and far wider access to information than was the case during premodern times—has come a heightened awareness of the large and growing disparity between rich and poor, with a small percentage of humanity possessing a disproportionately large portion of the world’s material wealth. In 2015, half of the world’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of one percent of the population, a disproportionate proportion of which was accounted for by US billionaires – 61,300 of the world’s wealthiest individuals came from the US. In second place was China (9,600), followed by the UK (5,400) (Treanor 2015). By way of contrast, according to one source, fifty-eight percent of the 45.8 million people now characterized as “enslaved” throughout the world are located in the following Asian nations: India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan (Global Slavery Index 2016). 

Even though Asia has one of the world’s strongest economies (China, that is), Asia’s average per capita GDP lags behind Europe: $6,090 in Asia in 2014 as compared to $27,500 in Europe in the same year. Moldova, the country with the lowest per capita GDP amongst 45 European nations, has more per capita GDP than Vietnam, which ranks at thirtieth in a total of 42 nations in Asia (“List of Asian Countries” 2015; “List of European Countries” 2015). Yet, the wealth inequality in some Asian nations tops the world. In China, the poorest 25 percent of households own just 1 percent of the nation’s total wealth (Wildau and Mitchell 2016). In India, as of 2014, the richest 10 percent held nearly three-quarters of total national wealth (“India’s Staggering Wealth Gap” 2014). In South Korea, in 2012, the top 10 percent of the population possessed 46 percent of the total national wealth, and the bottom 50 percent had only 9.5 percent (Koo 2014). The generation of global capital and its concentration in the hands of relatively few governments, corporations, and individuals has resulted in an astounding disparity between the wealthy and the poor, and this is particularly the case in Asia.



Global capitalism is, not surprisingly, closely connected to the destruction of the earth’s natural resources. Here, we are not simply talking about oil extraction or toxic chemical production that pollutes ground water and undermines the earth’s delicate eco-system. As Naomi Klein succinctly demonstrates, cheaper labor costs and longer working hours lead to higher levels of methane and carbon emissions, aggressively contributing to global warming (Klein 2014). Moreover, global capitalism often thrives on natural disasters and the post-disaster redrawing of the socio-economic and environmental map, as was seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans of 2005, when the industrial-government complex turned the disaster into a massive profit-making opportunity involving the reconstruction of schools, hospitals, and other public buildings as well as subsidized private housing—a phenomenon that Klein has dubbed “disaster capitalism” (Klein 2007).

But it is not just the economy that is re-mapped after disasters—local and national politics are as well. The 2011 massive earthquake, unprecedented tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in northeastern Japan opened up a clear pathway for the nation’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party to return to power. Prime Minister Abe’s government arrived armed with a right-wing economic, political, military, and educational agenda that was thickly imbued with an ultra-nationalist flavor. Many of the right-wing politicians who supported Abe were also members of neo-Shintoist political movements that sought, and continue to seek, to recover and reclaim Japan’s Imperialist past (Mullins 2016). In a sense, then, contemporary Japan’s political stance of not facing the consequences of its past colonial rule and brutality in Asia, and its attempt to re-write the postwar peace-oriented constitution, are not completely unrelated to the 2011 disaster and its aftermath.

It is also important to remember that in Asia and elsewhere, environmental disasters are often the product of human actions, ranging from military campaigns and corrupt government practices to corporate greed. As is well known, Japan was the victim of the US atomic bomb attacks of 1945, which not only destroyed millions of human lives, but also contaminated a vast area with radiation and toxicity. Not to be forgotten either is the fact that Japan excluded Korean atomic bomb victims from post-war benefits on the basis that its colonial hold on Korea ended in 1945. In Vietnam, the dioxin-rich herbicide known as Agent Orange was sprayed over a vast area of the country during the years 1962-1971 with the full knowledge and approval of the Kennedy administration, not only resulting in the permanent destruction of the environment and the livelihoods of a large proportion of the population, but also leading to serious birth defects and severe disabilities among thousands of babies, including many born quite recently.

The Great Chinese Famine of 1959–61, which resulted in the premature deaths of an estimated 40–50 million people, was due in part to extreme weather conditions (both flood and drought), but also to political corruption and gross economic mismanagement. In the case of the 1984 Bhopal disaster, Union Carbide India Limited exposed more than 500,000 people to the chemical methyl isocyanate, resulting in thousands of deaths and countless cases of blindness, chronic illnesses, and permanent disability. Not only did the disaster come with an enormous human cost, it also contaminated the environment for decades to come; leaked chemicals continue to pollute groundwater to this day. Meanwhile, Union Carbide has attempted to rid itself of any accountability, claiming exemption from the jurisdiction of the Indian justice system. At Minamata Bay in Japan, mercury and other toxic chemical compounds were released into the ocean between 1932 and 1968, leading to the agonizing deaths of thousands of individuals who had consumed seafood caught in the polluted waters. These are just a few reminders that environmental destruction and massive human misery do not occur in isolation from global warfare and global capitalism.



Let us now bring the movement of human beings into the global picture—in particular, those who might be described as transnational wanderers, or indeed, wanderers of any kind: refugees, immigrants, asylum-seekers, job-seekers, family members moving to another town after the loss of their home through flooding, children traveling to adoptive parents in another country after being abandoned by their own family, young women trafficked across national borders for sexual slavery, young men crossing borders without documentation to work in an uninsured workplace, mothers leaving their children with relatives in order to take care of other people’s children across the seas, and so on.

It is clear that unprecedented numbers of people are now moving across national borders–as immigrants and emigrants, to and from Asia and the rest of the world, as well as within Asia itself. According to a World Bank report, five Asian nations ranked among the top countries in 2013 in terms of numbers of emigrants: India (13.9 million), China (9.7 million), Bangladesh (7.6 million), Pakistan (6.2 million), and the Philippines (6.0 million). In 2010/2011, the three countries with the largest numbers of tertiary-educated emigrants were also Asian: India (2,221,000), the Philippines (1,524,000), and China (1,504,000). Accordingly, during the fiscal year 2015, the three countries with largest amount of inward remittances were India (US$72.2 billion), China (US$63.9 billion), and Philippines (US$29.7 billion). Indeed, in the case of the Philippines, total remittances accounted for ten percent of the country’s GDP in 2015. The US ranked in the top place in terms of outward remittances (US$56.3 billion) in 2014.

Meanwhile, in East Asia and the Pacific, intra-regional immigration accounted for 69.5 percent of immigration for the entire region in 2013, while in South Asia, intra-regional immigration made up 84.6 percent of the total figure for that year. There were also substantial transfers of income among Asian nations. World Bank data provides the following figures for the 2015 fiscal year: Pakistan to India – US$4.9 billion; India to Bangladesh – US$4.6 billion; Japan to China – US$4.2 billion; and South Korea to China – US$4.1 billion (World Bank 2016). What these numbers tell us is that labor is immensely cheaper in some parts of Asia than in others. In the homes of the wealthy, at shipyards and in hidden factories, in red light districts and on unsafe construction sites, transnational workers – men and women, the young and the old, whether working as semi-indentured maids, house servants, sex workers, temporary or seasonal skilled or unskilled laborers – are toiling away for minimal financial compensation under often hazardous and dangerous conditions.

Of course, human movement between different and disparate parts of the world has taken place since ancient times. From the campaigns of Alexander the Great to the Crusades, from the Mongols to the Ottoman Empire, the world has witnessed invasions extending across vast expanses of land and water, as well as the mass movement of human beings, some through migration, exodus, or pilgrimage, others through brutal relocation, as with the millions involved in the inter-continental and inter-hemispheric slave trade of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Commercial trade and exchange have led to the development and preservation of roads and sea lanes along which commodities have passed from one corner of the world to another, generation after generation, from the legendary Silk Routes to the computer-driven exchanges of Wall Street traders. Needless to say, Asia has played a significant role in all of these historical developments. What distinguishes the twenty-first century from preceding centuries is the intensity, speed, intricacy, and scope of such developments.



In what way, then, is globalization reshaping the contemporary nation-state, given the dazzling degree in which borders and boundaries are transgressed by its key driver, global capital? And in what way can national states co-exist with globalization which, by definition, challenges national state sovereignty? According to Prasenjit Duara, an increasingly tense relationship exists between the nation-state and globalization, because nation-states alone are no longer capable of addressing the complexities of global capitalism, much less the dire consequences of environmental destruction that globalization produces (Duara 2015). At the same time, supra-national neoliberal interventions disproportionately affect less wealthy nations. The IMF bailout and imposition of disciplinary neoliberalism on Asian nations during the 1990s is a case in point, involving a reshaping of regional finances as well as governance that, in turn, resulted in deeper stratification and greater wealth disparity in those countries (Ong 2002/3; Song 2009; McGoey 2015: 170-175). Through such processes, market flows, assisted by measures deployed by First World-generated international mechanisms such as the IMF and the WTO, entrench national states in hierarchical debtor-creditor relationships, keeping poor nations poor while augmenting the wealth of nations that are already wealthy.

On the other hand, in the First World itself, the tide of anti-globalization is rising from within. Take the 2016 US election, for instance. Having successfully campaigned with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” Donald Trump will be inaugurated in January 2017 as the forty-fifth president of the United States. Nationalist sentiment attached to the “America” in the above slogan involves a clear allusion to a white America, the imagined America of the 1950s and early 1960s, where everything was good and stable, where the single income of the male head of the household sufficed to feed the entire family, where everyone owned a home and a car and sent their children to college. Domestically, this “America” relied heavily on the under-compensated labor of people of color, and through its neocolonial domination in Asia and Latin America, this “America” sustained itself through economic subjugation, political intervention, and cultural hegemony. Thus, the idea of making America “great” again seems to suggest, at least implicitly, the idea of returning to policies that encourage racial segregation and discrimination against the poor, the sick, the disabled, and the disadvantaged, both internally and internationally.

To put the matter another way, America’s “greatness” was enabled by a domestic and globalized structure of exploitation—of the weak by the strong, and the poor by the wealthy. The channeling of resentment toward “others –including new immigrants, ethnic and racial minorities, and people embracing non-Judeo-Christian faiths–has helped to mask the enduring and ever-expanding disparities of wealth and privilege within US society. Similar attitudes and similar politics have emerged in contemporary Europe, all in the name of an aggressively nationalist “populism,” fed by economic difficulties and especially resentment over the increased arrival of refugees from war-torn areas such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Africa, among other places and regions.

In Asia, too, unmistakable new configurations of nationalist forces have become apparent, ranging from traditional and orthodox notions of the nation-state to more racist-oriented attitudes toward specific ethnic populations, a return to primordial sentiments of suspicion and hate. Such positions are not only being advanced and/or encouraged by right-wing organizations and individuals, but also (and more predominantly) by governments. The forces of neo-conservatism and ultra-nationalism have made strong progress in Japan during recent decades, with their one-sided emphasis on Japanese victimhood during WWII (particularly the US atomic bomb attacks in August 1945) and denial of their own atrocities and brutalization of Asian populations—especially in relation to wrongdoing on the part of the Japanese Imperial government in China from 1937–45 and with regard to the so-called “comfort women” recruited from Korea, a type of reaction that Mindy Kotler aptly names “Japan’s War on Truth” (Kotler 2014). In Myanmar, the Buddhist majority and the military government are systematically engaging in the elimination of the Muslim Rohingya minority. Fleeing the ethnocide in Myanmar, as of 2016, approximately 56,000 Rohingya have sought asylum in Malaysia. Although an international commission has been formed, there is not much hope for an improvement in the situation, and human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s de facto civilian leader, has not been forthcoming in defense of this persecuted minority group (“Malaysia: Myanmar” 2016).

Today, against the backdrop of a genuine global environmental crisis, nation states compete for resources that are themselves transnational in scope and scale. A case in point is the controversial series of dams that the Chinese are building in the Tibetan plateau, which together threaten to gravely affect biodiversity, wetland formation, flood patterns, and the very livelihoods of human populations in several South Asian and Southeast Asian countries. In the Greater Mekong Subregion, the actions of supranational actors such as ASEAN and the Asia Development Bank have upset the delicate ecological balance in particular regions, negatively impacting sub-tropical species as well as human populations—especially the approximately sixty million people who subsist on less than one US dollar per day. Mixed with a lack of transparency on the part of the governments involved (China, Laos, and Thailand), such waterway projects are posing a grave threat to the geo-economic ecology (Gunn & McCartan 2008).

Nationalist sentiments are also evident in the current transnational territorial clashes in the South China Sea, involving global capitalist and military interests, as well as the national interests of Taiwan, China, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and several other nations, including the United States. Likewise, South Korea and Japan are also involved in an ongoing sovereignty dispute concerning Dokdo or Takeshima, a formation of seemingly insignificant small islets and rocks located in the waters that separate the two nations. To further complicate matters, North Korea is also claiming sovereignty over this islet group. Each of the parties involved in the dispute is drawing upon historical documents and references in advancing its respective claims, Japan referring to colonial historical practices and Korea referring to premodern as well as postcolonial practices.

History is also a reference point in the sovereignty dispute involving the island group known in Japanese as Senkaku and in Chinese as Diaoyutai. Despite the diplomatic tensions between China and Taiwan, they are in rare agreement that the islands belong to Taiwan, as part of China in general and of Toucheng Township, Taiwan, in particular. Japan, for its part, claims the islands as part of Okinawa Prefecture. The situation has been further complicated by the fact that the US military placed the islands under its jurisdiction during its occupation of Okinawa (1945-1972). In these disputes, and many others as well, contemporary nodes of conflict involve a complex blend of national interests, historical precedents, military strategy, and competition over real and potential natural resources.



As can be seen in the foregoing discussion, key events that both sustain and reflect the processes of globalization are themselves interconnected: wars of invasion lead to the destruction of human lives as well as the environment; natural disasters often culminate in the re-drawing of economic and political maps; exploitation of cheap labor leads to overproduction, which, among other things, leads to further pollution; growing income disparities and the domination of political, economic, and social life by handfuls of elites lead to populist rebellion; and so forth.

Such phenomena, and the historical developments that preceded them, provide the primary orientation of our journal, Transnational Asia. Our focus is not entirely problem-based; we are also interested in the more positive developments that have attended the process of globalization over time—for instance, the expansion of literacy and the more effective delivery of health care. But there is an urgent need for the intellectual community, of which we are a part, to attend to human vulnerabilities –whether they be political, social, economic, religious, cultural, or environmental. And we believe that one important way to do so is to provide an interdisciplinary scholarly apparatus that stands on the side of justness and fairness, a forum in which ideas and commitments are exchanged for comparison and collaboration, critique and verification.

We are, however, already surrounded by thousands of such outlets—specialized academic journals, research periodicals, discussion forums, blogs, etc. So, why do we need Transnational Asia at this juncture? The reason is that Transnational Asia’s explicit goal is to promote and sustain a new globalized Asian Studies conversation—one that can transcend narrow constructions of “Asia,” and speak to the world, comparatively and interdisciplinarily, one that can promote a fusion of diverse scholarly disciplines and perspectives for the purpose of understanding, enriching, and bettering human lives today beyond the narrow confines of Area Studies. And, as indicated above, such inquiries are not limited to the study of contemporary era. Our steadfast conviction is that the past invariably informs and illuminates the present, and helps us envision the future. As such, our approach might be described as both trans-spatial and trans-temporal.

In sum, we feel that it is time for our colleagues throughout the world—historians, scholars of literature and the arts, social scientists, and others—to write as publicly engaged intellectuals, independent and free in thought, yet always committed to the greater social good. This is not an easy task, as scholars today are increasingly pressured into producing work that not only conforms with the values of the bodies that fund them (whether private or public, regional or national), but is also subject to metrically oriented standards of evaluation in order to further facilitate commercialization of research and education. The current situation presents serious challenges to free-thinking research and teaching. At the same time, it urges us to search ever more passionately for a way to ensure intellectual integrity, while reaching out to the public on matters of both local and global significance.

We invite you to join us in this endeavor through the online pages of Transnational Asia.



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