The RISEZAsia project (2016-2020) studies the emergence and proliferation of new Special Economic Zones (SEZ) that promotes the development of remote and resource rich borderlands across Asia. Theoretically the project wishes to develop tools for critical engagement with the unique forms of capitalism and governance instigated by SEZs. Secondly, in addition to its contribution to theoretical framings of borderland political economy, the research is significant for documenting the processes through which Asian borderlands currently are experiencing some of the largest land-grabs in modern history.
SEZs come in a variety of forms and can take the shape of export processing zones, speciel industrial zones, free trade zones and economic corridors often placed in sensitive borderland regions. Deregulation through the construction of SEZs in borderland regions creates new investment opportunities with global supply chains. SEZs offer/promise a combination of tax-tariff incentives, streamlined custom procedures, ownership limits and deregulation in order to attract investment to these ‘underdeveloped’ and 'unruly' spaces. SEZs are ‘backyards’ for the manufacturing industry (electronics, textiles etc.), energy production (dams, wind power etc.) agricultural expansion (oil palm, rubber etc.) or resource extraction (minerals, timber etc.) and at times all four constellations overlap. They become ‘export enclaves’ or ‘investment enclaves’ that are largely separated from the overall economy and run by cheap migrant labor.
However many SEZs never get going are poorly run and have no substantial employment or export earnings. This is especially so in SEZs where investments primarily target the extractive sectors instead of manufacturing. SEZs in low population density areas often collapse as soon as natural resources are depleted. The zoning as a SEZs and the ideas of modernity and development it envisage justify the extraction of resources often without developing lasting infrastructure. For example, through the creation of new SEZs, million of hectares of land are currently being annexed to mining and plantation companies for industrial exploitation and remote borderlands are being populated by thousands of labor migrants. These large-scale acquisitions of land and the infrastructure projects it has enabled have large impact on these ecologically vulnerable border zones and its population.
The RISEZAsia project is funded by a Starting Grant from Aarhus University Research Foundation.