Kean Fan Lim is Lecturer in Economic Geography at Newcastle University. He completed his doctoral studies at the University of British Columbia in 2014 and was appointed Assistant Professor in Economic Geography at the University of Nottingham (2014-2018). Kean joined Newcastle University in the spring of 2018, on the back of an established international reputation for evaluating national and transnational economic restructuring through subnational regions. This track record is primarily represented by two books. The first book, An East Asian Challenge to Western Neoliberalism: Critical Perspectives on the ‘China Model ’ (co-authored with Niv Horesh, 2017), speaks to a broad, interdisciplinary audience by foregrounding the constitutive role of inter-regional politics in the so-called ‘China model’ of development. More recently, his second book, On Shifting Foundations: State Rescaling, Policy Experimentation and Economic Restructuring in Post-1949 China, examines how the evolution of the Chinese political economy can only be concretely understood through the rescaling of state spatiality for city-regional policy experimentation. The book is published under the prestigious Royal Geography Society-Institute of British Geographers Books Series in February 2019.
The relentless search for new avenues of capital accumulation has generated fresh rounds of infrastructural investments. High profile examples include the oil pipelines connecting Alberta to the Pacific Ocean in Canada; the transcontinental railway between multiple city-regions in China and the European Union; and the enhancement of liquefied natural gas ‘bunkering’ capacities in Singapore. As Seth Schindler and Miguel Kanai eloquently demonstrate, infrastructure-led development has re-emerged as a major economic phenomenon: before a place becomes attractive for investors, policymakers and planners need to ‘get the territory right’.
When, then, does this territory become ‘right’? Existing studies have offered some incisive answers from multiple angles. At the macro-global scale, Martin Danyluk argues that capitalist system has been seeking to enhance production and the circulation of commodities through regularly seeking a ‘logistical fix’. The ‘right’ territory is therefore one that offers a ‘fix’ to the ‘chronic problem of overaccumulation’. From a local and regional vantage point, Andy Pike and colleagues examined through an in-depth, book-length study how ‘city statecraft’ became ‘financialised’ to produce new infrastructural spaces in the UK. Here, financial and regulatory actors are presented as the primary driving forces and consumers seeking place-specific infrastructural investments that could generate profits both directly (through revenue collection) and indirectly (a broader tax base and multiplier effect). These studies illustrate the central role of infrastructure in the reproduction of the global system of capitalism and in a process that has become characteristic of this system, financialisation. What could be further developed from these contributions is the process that turns visions and ideologies associated with infrastructural investments (which transforms territories) into concrete profits and renewed capital accumulation (making these new territories ‘right’). The concept of ‘strategic coupling’ would be very helpful in this regard.
As Neil Coe and Martin Hess elaborate, a “coupling” process is “strategic” because (1) it relies on intentional action and active deliberation; (2) it is time and space contingent, involving the construction of a “temporary coalition” between groups of actors who might not otherwise work together in the pursuit of a common objective; and (3) it transcends territorial boundaries, bringing together actors who operate across different spatial scales. In the context of urban and regional development, Henry Yeung defines strategic coupling as “the dynamic processes through which actors in cities and/or regions coordinate, mediate, and arbitrage strategic interests between local actors and their counterparts in the global economy.” The outcome is a delicate balancing of place‐specific institutional power with the power of transnational corporations (TNCs), two distinct forms of power Jeffrey Henderson et al. identify as integral to the territorialisation of GPNs. Viewed in the context of infrastructural provision, it is through this balancing that the benefits of the new facilities – new pipes, cables, airports, seaports, railway tracks, etc – could be realised in the form of monetary exchange. And this exchange underpins both financialisation (through providing a viable income stream) and capitalistic expansion (through lubricating both production and consumption).
Understanding how infrastructure-led development is underpinned by strategic coupling offers an opportunity to foreground the subnational region – whether it is provincial, metropolitan, or township – as a primary analytical scale. In so doing, it complements existing empirical studies that focus on national and supranational projects, such as China’s high-profile ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) and the ‘Major Projects’ of the European Union. Indeed, this also potentially showcases these national and supra-national projects as outcomes of active lobbying and inter-regional competition; as outcomes of the politics of regional development. How subnational institutions plug their respective territories into transnational production networks is not simply contingent on being part of a predetermined infrastructural plan at the national- or supranational level: it draws, rather, on an ability to convince political actors at the national and supra-national levels that they are more well-positioned vis-à-vis other subnational regions to generate benefits from new infrastructural projects. Examining how these institutions form ‘temporary coalitions’ to implement infrastructural strategies is a current research ‘blind spot’, and one that highlights the significance of the regional scale as an analytical point of entry.
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