I am back from the International Research Symposium on Public Management in Asia: Innovation and Transformation, which was held at the Education University of Hong Kong. My paper was “Regulating the Governance of Special Economic Zones in the Greater Mekong Subregion.”
The countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) (i.e. Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam) have all adopted the special economic zone (SEZ) as a means of facilitating their trajectory through the Factory Asia paradigm of import-substituting, export-oriented intensive manufacturing based on low labour cost competitiveness. The SEZs supplement and in some cases supercede the previously built places of development which are industrial estates and industrial parks of various sorts. They offer the benefit of having demonstrated success (as the hundreds of millions of Chinese people raised out of poverty testifies) with a political system that does not require democracy or political pluralism. This is also not required by the international treaties that are in place in ASEAN and in its relationships with trade partners. In terms of governance, each country has introduced new legislation to regulate SEZs and, thereby, encourage further inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI) and the benefits it is believed that will bring. The range of legislation includes prime ministerial decrees and comprehensive laws aiming to provide all-encompassing treatment of activities. By definition, these regulations apply to specific pieces of territory and not to the remainder of the country. They may also be limited in time, as in Vietnam, where the use of SEZs as a policy experiment is most clearly evident. However, it is not clear that international best practice has been achieved in SEZ governance because each country feels the need to adopt an individual approach to it and each has designed SEZ policy for its own developmental and political goals. These goals range from the need to maintaining good relationships with China in the case of Kyaukphu SEZ in Myanmar to the security issue of migrant workers in Thailand’s proposed border SEZs to the fostering of cross-border activities in the Mohan-Boten zone. This paper examines the different legal frameworks that have been used to regulate SEZs in the GMS and seek to identify which aspects are more useful in attracting FDI and in delivering developmental goals more generally. The paper then goes on to explore the extent to which these regulations may be brought into national usage, which is based on international comparisons.
Keywords: development, governance, Greater Mekong Subregion, policy, special economic zones