Shrinking the neo-orientalist Gap

Globalization's first commandment: Thou shalt manage thy supply chain.

Published June 12, 2006 11:02PM (EDT)

This afternoon's post is brought to you by the topic "supply chain management" -- specifically by Shawn Beilfuss' Asia Logistics Wrap.

It is part of the wonder and glory of the global conversation taking place on the Internet that if there isn't already a blog devoted to the topic you are interested in today, then just wait until tomorrow. Someone will come along who feels obsessively compelled to devote oodles of time and brainpower to analyzing whatever it is you are curious about.

I learned about Asia Logistics Wrap today from the excellent China Law Blog run by Dan Harris. Harris intrigued me by noting that Beilfuss was working on a multipart series on Kaesong, the special economic zone in North Korea where South Korean capitalists are exploiting northern workers and which I wrote about last week. Beilfuss' avowed intent is to use supply chain management theory to analyze the impact of globalization on North Korea. Since that's the kind of stuff this blog is all over like a hungry dog gnawing on a t-bone, I scurried over. I mean, I am exactly the kind of geek for whom the question, "How is a country with a small land area, scarce resources, a 55-year-old autocratic system of government, poor infrastructure, and noncompetitive labor force going to convince supply chain professionals, who would be responsible for the assessment of North Korea as a supply chain hub or node, to include it in a regional or global network of operations?" is of unseemly interest.

Still, Asia Logistics Wrap is not for those looking for lots of chili pepper in their kimchi. Supply chain management is dry stuff, and in-depth looks at China's plans for port modernization, or air cargo hub strategy in East Asia may not be to everyone's taste. But supply chain management is also the very lifeblood of globalization. It is one of the defining characteristics of the global economy that the computer on which I am typing these words is made from many thousands of components manufactured and designed all over the globe and combined in a stream of production that is phenomenally complex and ever-changing.

To some, the unprecedented expansion of the modern industrial supply chain is a fatal weakness of globalization, comprising a fragile, overextended structure that is doomed to crack and fall asunder in the face of an unforeseen disaster or global economic downturn. But to Beilfuss, the spread of state-of-the-art supply chain management is also the spread of civilization, of connectivity, of the "Core" developed world into the periphery of the developing "Gap."

Beilfuss borrows the Core-Gap terminology, along with the associated phrase "shrinking the Gap," from Naval War College political scientist Thomas Barnett, who made some waves in 2004 with his book "The Pentagon's New Map," which lays out a manifesto for interventionist U.S. military policy in combination with nation-building efforts (that would require a lot of supply chain management). For Beilfuss, the Kaesong Industrial Park is a fascinating attempt at "shrinking the Gap" in a geopolitical region of enormous importance to the world. North Korea, writes Beilfuss, "hopes to have its own little zoo of globalization's animals, contained and controlled in cages for everyone to see but which the majority of its own people would never experience."

For Beilfuss, "shrinking the Gap" seems to be a good and desirable thing, by definition. If North Korea was more economically integrated into the Northeast Asian region, for example, that could set it on a long forestalled path to economic growth and might lead to the easing of nuclear tensions. But there's an aspect to the whole "shrinking the Gap" ideology that comes off as, well, to borrow a term from a bold critique of Western-led globalization that ran in the U.K. Guardian on Saturday, "neo-orientalist." It assumes that becoming part of a global supply chain ultimately headquartered in Tokyo and New York and London is the natural destiny of an aspiring nation. And it may skate over the more grubby reality that "shrinking the gap" often means little more than shrinking the distance from capital to the cheapest possible labor.

Personally speaking, How the World Works has a weakness for supply chain infrastructure. Just this morning, as I was riding my BART train through the Oakland port, I stared with my usual awe at the vast fleets of containers being unloaded from cargo ships via giant cranes, destined for railway or truck transportation throughout Northern California and on to parts beyond. I am sure I would stare with equal amazement at the incredible physical expansion of such infrastructure occurring in China. There is enduring wonder to be experienced at the sheer inventiveness and energy and scale of the human impulse to move things around. But I try not to ever let myself forget that at the end of so many of those supply chains there is a human being in a factory somewhere, working for next to nothing in crappy conditions.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

China Globalization How The World Works