In today’s global economy of cross-border production networks, the need to understand the changing ways in which the state and firms work together has become even more pressing. While the state plays an important role in supporting these production networks, it is firms and other private organisations — industry associations and standards organisations, for example — which coordinate and organise these networks.
UNCTAD’s World Investment Report 2013 estimated that some 80 per cent of today’s world trade is conducted through firms in these production networks — they are the backbone and central nervous system of the global economy.
In Southeast Asia, many economies are heavily involved in production networks, some of which are highly regional in nature. The ASEAN Investment Report 2016 suggests that regional production networks will be critical in realising the ASEAN Economic Community’s goals, which include building a single market of over US$2.5 trillion and a single production base of over 620 million people. As Escaith et al argue in East Asia Forum Quarterly ‘Strategic Diplomacy in Asia‘, ‘understanding the nature and dynamics of these production networks will be more important to securing stable and fair growth throughout the region’.
Donald Trump has abandoned TPP and opened the door to China in favour of America First. Now ASEAN must get on with RCEP. Towards a more calibrated approach to strategic economic diplomacy
We need to rethink the strategic diplomacy of economic development — it can no longer be entirely state-driven in an era of global production networks. I use the concept ‘strategic coupling’ to describe the mechanism of strategic economic diplomacy through which domestic firms couple their specific initiatives and advantages with those of global lead firms. Through this process, firms coordinate diverse production networks spanning across national and regional territories.
The Apple–Foxconn case is one example of strategic coupling at work. Taiwan’s Foxconn is instrumental not only in ‘manufacturing’ Apple’s iPhone success but also in integrating Taiwan and mainland China into the iPhone’s global production networks.
But this well told story has a critical and often missed dimension — the even more crucial role played by South Korea’s Samsung. Apple’s major competitor in the global mobile handsets market, Samsung has also supplied critical components to successive generations of iPhones assembled by Foxconn.
While serving as the iPhone’s largest supplier by value of components, Samsung has kept busy building its own production networks throughout East and Southeast Asia, including a giant industrial park in the Bac Ninh province of North Vietnam. Opened in 2009, Samsung’s smartphone production there has transformed a province of rice fields into Vietnam’s second-largest export centre after Ho Chi Minh City.
While the state and its policy initiatives in Taiwan, mainland China, South Korea and Vietnam facilitated this Foxconn–Apple–Samsung strategic coupling, they are not the only domain through which this new mechanism of economic development can be effective and successful.
My recent work Strategic Coupling shows that equally if not more important than state policies are the organisational and technological innovations developed by national firms, such as Samsung and Hon Hai (Foxconn’s parent). These firms seize opportunities embedded in the cross-border production networks spearheaded by global lead firms from advanced industrial economies in North America, Western Europe and Japan.
The state’s capacity to steer national economic development and ‘govern the market’ has become more constrained since the 1990s. The transformation of state roles has led to the weakening of the state’s embedded autonomy in countries like South Korea and Taiwan. State institutions began to facilitate the redistribution of state power towards more horizontal and functional policy in support of domestic firms and industries that take advantage of growing global opportunities.
As Southeast Asian states move from active economic intervention to facilitating strategic coupling between firms and global production networks, developmental partnerships start to broaden from top-down state–firm relations to include inter-firm networks. This new mechanism of strategic economic diplomacy recommends a dynamic conception of state-firm relations that goes beyond the debilitating market–state dichotomy.
The integration of Vietnam into Samsung’s global production network is a good example of this rethinking of strategic economic diplomacy. Samsung’s US$15 billion investment in Vietnam represents a strategic imperative to diversify away from mainland China, where Foxconn is dominant. It allows Samsung to tap into strong existing industrial clusters in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
What does the strategic coupling story suggest in terms of public policy? While it is now much harder for almost any Southeast Asian economy to develop internationally competitive vertically integrated industries, there remains significant room for a new kind of strategic economic diplomacy — one that encourages domestic firms to tap into the developmental opportunities inherent in most global industries.
The call for a more calibrated approach to strategic economic diplomacy brings with it the possibility of focusing on more niche policies that nudge strategic coupling. As industrial production becomes ever more fragmented and globalised, state planners in Southeast Asian economies will find it harder to identify which products and technologies should be developed in their domestic industries.
Today’s obstacles to economic development are less about large capital outlays and scale of investment, and more about developing specialised niches within different global industries. In most global industries characterised by vertical specialisation and modularisation (transport equipment, ICT, agro-food and so on), a niche approach to industrial policy is likely to yield stronger coupling networks than a ‘big spurt’ approach to state-led industrialisation.
The politics of industrial and sectoral choice is confounded by the growing uncertainties of today’s global economy. Value creation and capture tends to be much greater in new innovation-based industries in the manufacturing and service sectors, such as nanotechnology, biomedicine, green tech and digital media. Here, catching up is not just a matter of capital investment led by state-controlled financial institutions and elite industrial development agencies. The sheer complexity and wide range of actors and interests with specialised knowledge in these industries makes it rather unruly for bureaucratic targeting, even for a state with well-coordinated industrial policy.
Looking forward, the post-developmental state should focus on creating broad-based capabilities in new technologies, product and process innovations, and market development, rather than choosing specific winning firms, industries or sectors.
Henry Wai-chung Yeung is Provost’s Chair and Professor of Economic Geography at the Department of Geography and Co-Director of the Global Production Networks Centre, National University of Singapore.
This article appeared in the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Strategic diplomacy in Asia’.