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Asymmetrical NeighborsBorderland State Building between China and Southeast Asia$

Enze Han

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780190688301

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190688301.001.0001

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The Neighborhood Effect of State and Nation Building

The Neighborhood Effect of State and Nation Building

(p.20) 2 The Neighborhood Effect of State and Nation Building
Asymmetrical Neighbors

Enze Han

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 2 establishes both the empirical and theoretical foundations for the book. For illustrative purposes, it provides comparative statistics of the divergence in state and nation building in the borderland area among the three states. For state building, it offers a set of indicators, such as taxation, education, and health provisions, to as a way to conceptualize the differences in each state’s ability to provide for its citizens along the borderland area. It then offers a sketch of how nation-building efforts in the three states in the borderland area also differ from one another in both style and substance. The chapter then discusses, in a general way, various current theoretical approaches and proposes a novel theoretical framework that looks at state and nation building as an interactive process dependent on power balances and the nature of relations among neighboring states.

Keywords:   neighborhood effect, state building, theoretical framework, borderland studies, nation building

After half an hour on a bumpy road, the car took me to one of the largest camps for internally displaced persons (IDP) in the KIA-controlled area. It was the summer of 2013, and several thousand people who had lost their homes due to the fighting between the KIA and the Myanmar military were housed here. Throughout Kachin State, as a result of the ongoing military clashes, there were many temporary IDP camps, where after years of internal conflict, large sections of the ethnic population in the borderland area have been forced to live in those makeshift dwellings with only very basic shelter. The camp had a very limited supply of electricity, and even that was through a connection with the Chinese side of the border, across from a little creek. There were limited economic activities, and many people crossed the border to China to find temporary labor. One small school with only a couple of teachers provided very basic education for the children.

In Laiza, there are a total of seven schools, including one high school, set up by the KIO, the civilian counterpart of the KIA. Since the area is under the de facto control of the KIA, its school curricula are in both the Burmese and Kachin languages. In fact, it is only in the KIA-controlled area that the Kachin language is taught in the school system; in other parts of Kachin State under Myanmar government control, such bilingual education is banned in the state school system. Thus, ordinary Kachin people who want to learn their own language cannot do so in the state school system, except in KIA-controlled areas or informally in some Kachin churches.

Indeed, this prohibition of ethnic language education is a common practice throughout the ethnic states in Myanmar. In the neighboring Shan State, people can only learn Shan languages in monasteries or in private schools set up by Shan nationalists. In the outskirts of Kengtung, in the center of eastern Shan State, my friend Duwan, a Shan monk, once took me on a tour at a local Shan (Tai-Kuen) school with a loose connection to the SSA, where about a hundred pupils were studying. The school is a primary school built (p.21) on a hilltop in the compound of a Shan monastery. Here children of school age learn three languages—Burmese, English, and Shan—and teachers in the school print their own education materials in Shan. However, due to the lack of funding and facilities, the level of education is very basic, and they run the risk of the children’s education background not being recognized by the Myanmar state school system.

This chapter introduces some general descriptions of various state and nation-building efforts along the borders of China, Myanmar, and Thailand and provides a set of statistics commonly utilized to measure state and nation building. It engages with existing political science literature in general, and then proposes an alternative perspective on how state and nation building in one country can be related to events and circumstances in neighboring countries, that is, the neighborhood effect of state and nation building.

Variations in State and Nation Building across the Borderland

When we look at the three neighboring states of China, Myanmar, and Thailand, we can see that they vary significantly in terms of state capacity at the national level. One of the most commonly used indicators of this is state tax revenue as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is the conventional gauge of a state’s extractive capacity.1 The tax ratio reflects its ability to extract resources from both individuals and corporate actors. As figure 2.1 shows, for a selected number of years, Myanmar’s state extractive capacity has been much lower than that of either Thailand or China.2 In 2004, only about 3% of Myanmar’s GDP came from tax revenue. That same year, close to 9% of China’s GDP came from tax revenue, while in Thailand the figure was 16%. Although the most recent data are not available, it is certain that, overall, Myanmar’s capacity is not in the same league as its two more powerful neighbors.

The Neighborhood Effect of State and Nation Building

Figure 2.1 Tax Revenue as Percentage of GDP

From figure 2.2, we can also see that China and Thailand have become much richer than Myanmar. According to World Bank Development Indicators, Myanmar’s GDP per capita barely exceeded US$1,000, while Thailand’s was close to US$6,000, and China’s almost US$8,000 by 2014. A few other indicators of human development in terms of education and health reveal similar differences, as we can see from table 2.1. Although Myanmar’s adult literacy rate has mostly caught up with both China and (p.22) Thailand—all three countries are in the ninetieth percentile of adult literacy at the national level—there are still discrepancies in the overall provision of education. For example, 51% of students entered secondary school in Myanmar, compared with 86% in Thailand and 96% in China. This indicates that Myanmar’s education level overall is still very rudimentary, and the state has not been able to provide more than a very basic level of education. In terms of health, the infant mortality rate is much higher in Myanmar than in China or Thailand. Life expectancy is likewise much lower in Myanmar than in the other two countries. Thus, at the national level there is strong evidence (p.23) showing the discrepancy in terms of state capacity and how much each state has been able to provide for its own citizens.

The Neighborhood Effect of State and Nation Building

Figure 2.2 GDP per Capita, in Current US Dollars

Table 2.1 Additional Indicators of Human Development in China, Myanmar, and Thailand in Selected Years




Adult Literacy Rate (%)

95.12 (2010)

92.79 (2013)

96.43 (2010)

Secondary School Enrollment Rate (%)

96.2 (2013)

51.3 (2013)

86.2 (2013)

Infant Mortality Rate (%)

0.92 (2015)

3.95 (2015)

1.05 (2015)

Life Expectancy (years)

76 (2014)

66 (2014)

74 (2014)

World Bank Development Indicators, bracketed numbers indicate the years most recent data are available.

However, these data are at the national level and by no means represent the same levels of state building in the borderland area. There are lots of reasons to suspect that at the remote borderland territories the presence of the state might be much less evident. Especially in more remote mountainous areas that characterize the borderland among the three countries, the geographical barriers the state must overcome to penetrate society and provide for citizens can be quite formidable. However, data at the local level are very limited and inconsistent, especially in the Myanmar case. Certainly, it might be that the Myanmar government does not want to publish comprehensive data, but the more likely explanation is that for much of the borderland area discussed in this book, the central government lacks the capacity even to make its presence known—as we have already discussed in the previous chapter—let alone to provide basic infrastructure for the people living there. As a result, the data presented here are simply for illustration purposes and by no means represent a valid across-the-board comparison of state building in the borderland area.

There are other indicators to measure such differences, such as the 2009–2010 UNICEF Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), which measures and records the situations of children and women in Myanmar, including data on the Kachin and Shan states.3 From figure 2.3, we can see that several of the key basic development indicators, which highly correlate with state capacity, are overwhelmingly unsatisfactory. The primary school enrollment rate in Shan State is much lower than the Myanmar national average or that (p.24) of Kachin State. Especially in Shan State North, where it borders China, and Shan State East, where it borders China, Thailand, and Laos, enrollment rates are significantly lower. In addition, primary school completion rates are much lower overall, which indicates the rudimentary level of education in the borderland area in Myanmar. In terms of health provision for children, the conditions are quite abysmal. At the national level, about 35% of Myanmar’s children are stunted. However, in northern Shan State almost 50% are. As for underweight children, the northern Shan State data indicate a higher rate there than the national average, at 24.1%.

The Neighborhood Effect of State and Nation Building

Figure 2.3 Select Indicators of Development in Kachin and Shan States in Myanmar, 2009–2010

For comparison, the UNICEF MICS of 2012 reported a much higher level of development in northern Thailand.4 As we can see in figure 2.4, although the reported data vary slightly in terms of the measurement index, some of the comparable ones can be utilized. For example, in northern Thailand only 7.8% of children are underweight, much fewer than in Shan State. In addition, almost 98% of children in Northern Thailand are vaccinated against measles. Primary school attendance is also higher than in Shan State. But more striking is the higher rate of secondary school attendance in northern Thailand, at more than 80%. Such indicators suggest that as the level of economic development has increased in northern Thailand, the capacity of the Thai state has also improved, in its ability to provide more comprehensive education and health care for its population in the borderland area.

The Neighborhood Effect of State and Nation Building

Figure 2.4 Select Indicators of Development in Northern Thailand

No such comparable MICS data are available for China. Instead, data in table 2.2 are collected from statistical yearbooks from China’s Yunnan (p.25) province in recent years. The Chinese government has, overall, provided comprehensive education for its citizens in the borderland area. In 2013, for example, 99.5% of children were enrolled in primary school. The enrollment rate for middle school is actually higher than 100%, which means there is migration from other parts of China to this borderland area. The same can also be said of the health care and social welfare provisions. All such indicators (p.26) point to the fact that China has a much higher level of state capacity than Myanmar, especially in the borderland area between the two countries.

Table 2.2 Yunnan Province School Enrollment Rate

Primary School (%)

Middle School (%)

High School (%)

Higher Education (%)




































Statistical Yearbook, Yunnan Province, http://www.chinadataonline.com/

In terms of nation building, however, comparable data to show the variations of “nation-ness” across the borderland area are much more difficult to obtain. One possible proxy is through the reach of state education, which itself is highly correlated with state capacity. Conventional literature on nation building shows that specific nationalist ideologies can be propagated among the population through state education systems.5 While empirical data to measure the effectiveness of such nationalist education are lacking, the variations in school enrollment among the three neighboring states in the borderland can be a rough proxy measurement of its reach.

The other way to get a sense of the discrepancy in nation building is to look at existing ethnonationalist movements across the borderland. Here the only active groups are in Myanmar, where along the borderland there are still several ethnic rebel groups with varying degrees of ethnonationalist claims. Many have established special regions and vague ceasefire agreements with the Myanmar government.6 For example, there are a few special regions along the borderland area between China, Myanmar, and Thailand, where different ethnic rebels have been holding varying degrees of autonomous control. Before August 2009, when Kokang was taken over by the Myanmar military, it was the Shan State Special Region No. 1, where the MNDAA under the leadership of Peng Jiasheng used to administer the area with strong Chinese influence. More prominent than Kokang is the Wa State, or the so-called Special Region No. 2, where the UWSA claims to be the largest non-government military force, administering two separate pieces of territory, one close to the Chinese border and the other adjacent to the Thai border.7 There are also various Shan nationalist armed groups, such as the SSA-North and the SSA-South, who sometimes collaborate with government forces and other times clash with them. Then there is also the KIA, which has very strong Kachin nationalist claims against the Myanmar central government.8 On top of that, several other smaller ethnic rebel groups roam the borderland area. Although it is difficult to gauge the strength of these rebel groups’ ethnonationalist claims, it is reasonable to argue that various ethnic groups along the border have consistently opposed Myanmar nationalist ideology.9

Although China is also home to prominent ethnonationalist groups that demand more autonomy or independence, such as the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, the ethnic minority groups along its border with Myanmar are nonetheless politically inactive while reporting high levels of assimilation (p.27) into the Han Chinese-dominated mainstream. In the early years after the CCP came into power, policies providing local ethnic autonomy encouraged some ethnic minority elites to join the Chinese government. During periods of political instability and repression, such as the Cultural Revolution, many ethnic minorities along the border opted to cross it and seek refuge in Burma rather than take up arms against the Chinese state. China’s greater capacity to suppress such military activities thus highly restricted how much ethnic minority nationalist mobilization could occur. Ultimately, the Chinese state has been more successful in implementing its nation-building policies in southern Yunnan.

For Thailand, the only prominent ethnonationalist groups that have consistently challenged the Thai government’s version of nation-building efforts are the separatist movements in the southern provinces of Pattani, Songkra, and Yala.10 The northern ethnic minorities, which the Thai government refers to as “hill tribes” or “highland population,” have been relatively successfully incorporated into the Thai nation-state for the past few decades. Except during the time of communist insurgency in the mid-1960s when some ethnic minority groups, such as the Meo/Hmong, joined the armed resistance, the highland development project sponsored by the Thai government and monarchy has made a substantial impact on incorporating the peripheral ethnic minority people into the Thai nation-state through its strong emphasis on education in the Thai language.11 Today, in northern Thailand, there are no active ethnonationalist groups who mobilize against the state. Thus over the past few decades, China and Thailand have been more successful in their respective nation-building projects in the borderland area than Myanmar. In conjunction with the variation in state building just discussed, how does one explain such variation in nation building?

Theories of State and Nation Building

Existing literature on state building comes from different strands. The most prominent one, the so-called bellicist theory pioneered by Charles Tilly and others, looks at state building as a historical process that emerged symbiotically with war making, and has consistently emphasized the crucial role war played in the development of the European state system.12 As Tilly argues, “To the extent that they are successful in subduing their rivals outside or inside the territory they claim, the wielders of coercion find themselves obliged (p.28) to administer the lands, goods, and people they acquire; they become involved in extraction of resources, distribution of goods, services, and income, and adjudication of disputes.”13 Thus, in order to effectively fund the war making enterprise, European rulers became more efficient in their revenue collection, improved civil administration in exchange for civilian cooperation, and established nationalist symbols to unify the population they governed. In such processes, the foundations of the modern bureaucratic state were built. As the famous saying goes, “States make war, and war makes the state.”14

The successful development of the European state system has invariably been compared with the rest of the world, where scholars have sought to explain variations in state formation. In Latin America, for example, scholars have pointed out how the lack of interstate total wars historically stunted the growth of bureaucratic states there.15 Lacking the need for mass mobilization for total wars, “Limited wars rarely leave positive institutional legacies and often have long-term costs,” such as fiscal or debt crisis, professional military rather than popular participation, alienation from patriotic symbols, and economic downturn.16 Thus, in contrast with the European experience, strong states did not form in Latin America due to the lack of need for mass mobilization, and the easy availability of international financing also made state rulers more willing to borrow money to fund their war-making efforts rather than tax their own populations. Subsequently many Latin American governments became heavily indebted yet did not penetrate deeply into their respective societies.

Similar to Latin America, post-independence Africa has also lacked overall the total wars that Europe experienced.17 The state system that African countries inherited from European colonization, with its fixed boundaries, meant they faced little existential pressure.18 As Jeffrey Herbst points out, “The system that has preserved the continent’s boundaries has not been significantly tested because most leaders considered it obvious that they were better off with their inherited boundaries than they would be in a chaotic war situation where sovereignty or considerable territory might be lost.”19 Instead, much of the warfare in Africa has tended to be internal and interethnic, and the African states have more difficulty building uniform national identities.20 Furthermore, the weak bureaucracies meant insufficient capacity to extract revenue from people; instead, many governments rely on taxation of foreign goods, thus further diminishing the prospect of building strong institutions to connect the population with the state.21

(p.29) In contrast with the Latin American and African experiences, East Asia (including both Northeast and Southeast Asia) as a region has suffered perennial devastation by both interstate and civil wars.22 During the modern period, it has been devastated by Japanese aggression during WWII, the Chinese Civil War, the Korean War, wars in Indochina, and ethnonationalist and ideological civil insurgencies throughout Southeast Asia during and after the Cold War. With such widespread warfare in the region, both in terms of preparation for war and wars that have actually broken out, it is no wonder that quite a few strong states emerged in the region, such as several East Asian countries. Richard Stubbs, in his study of the relationship between war preparation and economic development in East Asia, points out “[Nowhere] has this lack of attention to the economic consequences of war and preparation for war detracted more from our understanding of events than in East and Southeast Asia.”23 Similarly, Doner, Ritchie, and Slater compared several Northeast and Southeast Asian states, pointing out that successful developmental states with impressive capabilities, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, “emerged from the challenges of delivering side payments to restive popular sectors under conditions of extreme geopolitical insecurity.”24

Other than this bellicist approach to understanding systematic development and underdevelopment in state building around the world, there is also significant scholarship on domestic factors that might facilitate or hinder state capacity building. Factors such as geography and regime types have been theorized to explain such variations. In the African context, the historically low population density meant that in much of sub-Saharan Africa, the political logic of power projection was totally different from that in either Europe or Asia. Even though many African states have made significant progress after independence, the large, sparsely populated open spaces have continued to deter effective physical control.25 The role of political geography has also featured prominently in the civil war literature.26 As the antithesis of state building, studies on civil wars have consistently examined factors that might facilitate the outbreak of civil wars or hinder effective consolidation efforts by the central state. For example, scholars have emphasized that rough, mountainous terrain can significantly deter the state’s capacity to project centralized power, thus creating conditions conducive to civil war.27 Furthermore, there are studies that link regime types to civil conflicts. Authoritarian systems are overall more likely to experience civil conflict than democracies.28

(p.30) Closely intertwined with state building, nation building has also been explained through similar approaches. For example, war has a symbiotic relationship with nationalist indoctrination. Interstate wars often have a strong impact domestically on the populace, which then often creates a “rally behind the flag” effect.29 Wartime mobilization typically has a strong dose of nationalist indoctrination. War against an external other can substantially improve internal solidarity and thus can help domestic nation building.30 This is why wars against foreign aggression often feature prominently in nationalist education.

Regarding domestic factors, ethnic diversity and demographic patterns have been noted as crucial factors in whether nation building is successful or not. An ethnically diverse country, by its very nature, finds it more difficult to create an overarching nationalist ideology that incorporates every ethnic group without one dominating another. Thus, ethnic fragmentation and, especially, polarization have been noted as barriers to nation-building efforts to establish a uniform citizenry.31 Similarly, ethnic demographic distribution, such as ethnic group concentration, is a crucial factor that might hinder national consolidation.32 Economic horizontal inequality between diverse ethnic groups has also been noted as conducive for ethnic strife, leading those ethnic groups to rebel against the state.33 Exclusion of ethnic minorities from the political process has often been noted as detrimental to nation building.34

However, all these explanations tend to consider state building as purely confined within the territorial boundaries of states. It seems that the reasons why some states are more successful than others in state building have overall been attributed to their war making capacity, geographical features, or particular ethnic population distribution. Certainly, such factors matter a great deal, as we have already seen in the vast literature that supports such arguments. However, these approaches have generally missed out an important dimension of how states undertake their state-building projects, which is the effect from neighboring states. Indeed, not many countries in the world are isolated island states, and most share borders with other states. It is not (p.31) difficult to conceptualize how state building in one country might be highly contingent upon similar processes occurring among its neighbors.

For the past decade, there has been a robust trend in studying the international dimension of civil conflict: going beyond country-specific factors, scholars have examined closely how factors spanning national boundaries affect civil conflict. Using the terms “bad neighbors and bad neighborhoods,” Weiner points out that for studies on refugee flows, there is a geographic cluster effect: “Regions with a number of countries in which violence and brutality impel large numbers of people to cross international borders in search for security.”35 Further studies indeed have highlighted this contagion effect of civil war, in that conflict in one country easily spills over into neighboring states.36 Refugee inflows can increase the burden on the neighboring host state. Worse still, militants can also easily cross the border into neighboring states, which can significantly destabilize them, as observed in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, when Hutu militants crossed over into the Democratic Republic of Congo.37

Rebels in one country often use the neighboring states as sanctuaries, as “External bases are tactically desirable for rebels because the state is better able to conduct counterinsurgency operations at home than abroad.”38 Thus, if rebels can find sanctuaries across the border, they can escape the brunt of state repression, which helps them to survive. On the other hand, if neighboring states are adversaries, one might intentionally provide sanctuary for rebels so as to undermine the other. For example, Thailand provided shelter for the Khmer Rouge so as to weaken the Vietnamese-supported government in Cambodia in the late 1970s.39

Other than hosting rebels, states might meddle in each other’s domestic affairs if they are adversaries. Often, the intervening party uses its military and economic capacity to influence the conflict mechanism in its neighbors so as to produce an outcome it considers favorable.40 Meddling in neighbors’ domestic affairs thus serves a variety of domestic and foreign policy purposes, such as “ideological contestation, regime change, the protection of kin group, the pursuit of disputed territory, competition between rivals for regional status and influence, and so on.”41 Other than direct military and economic support, states can also use a variety of subversive measures to undermine their neighbors. Indeed, Lee finds consistent evidence around the world in supporting how hostile neighbors can weaken each other through subversive meddling.

(p.32) Therefore, if we accept that civil conflict and state building are antithetical to each other, then theoretically speaking we should pay attention to how state building in one country can influence the same process in neighboring states. We should treat state building as an interactive process between domestic politics in one state and the international dimension that relates to its neighbors. Having said that, we need to acknowledge that not every neighboring state is equally endowed in influencing state building in other states, and thus this neighborhood effect would take on different shapes under various configurations of relations among neighboring states. Here, I propose to examine two aspects of the international relations among neighboring states to theorize under what conditions different forms of neighborhood effect of state building can take place.

The first aspect is power symmetry among neighboring states, for which we can broadly categorize a dyad of countries as either asymmetrical or at parity with each other in terms of power capabilities.42 The other aspect is the overall relation between two neighboring states, for which they can be coarsely defined as adversarial or amicable to each other. By juxtaposing these two aspects, we have a rough projection of conditions under which different forms of neighborhood effect on state building can take shape (see table 2.3).43

Table 2.3 Theories of Neighborhood Effect of State Building Dynamics as Dyads

Asymmetrical (state A more powerful than state B)

Parity (state A and B with similar power capability)


State A: political/military meddling

State B: fragmentation of state control of the borderland

States A & B: confrontation and militarization of the mutual borderland


State A: economic domination

State B: diminished economic sovereignty over the borderland

States A & B: low neighborhood effect over the borderland

In the context where there is power asymmetry between two neighboring states, the more powerful one essentially has greater capability to influence the state-building process in the other state. If these two states were on adversarial terms with each other, either due to historical feuds, territorial disputes, or ideological differences, then the more powerful state would intend influencing the other according to its own interests. Here, therefore, we (p.33) are more likely to observe a case of intensive meddling by the more powerful state in its neighbor’s state-building process along the borderland region. There are many historical cases of this, Germany’s military aggression toward the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia during WWII being an excellent example.44 If, on the other hand, these two states were amicable to each other, then the powerful state would have less incentive to change the other one according its own liking. Yet, due to power asymmetry between the two, the more powerful state’s influence on its neighbor’s state-building process would still be felt, although to a lesser extent and often in a more benign way than in the first scenario. Barring political meddling, the most likely dynamic in this scenario is the extensive economic influence of the more powerful state on the lesser states, whereby the latter lose much or parts of their economic control over the borderland area. For example, the relationship dynamic between the United States and Mexico and Canada fits well with this scenario, where the United States exerts significant dominance over the borderland economies.45

If the two neighboring states were of relatively equal power capabilities, then the dynamic between them would also be different. If the two states were adversarial to each other, then we would most likely observe heightened tension between them. However, due to the relative equal capability of both countries, neither would be able to overpower the other in the borderland area. Therefore, the most likely outcome is militarization along the border with significant military coercion and destruction. For example, during the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, Iran supported the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq while Iraq supported the Mujahedin-e-Khalq in Iran, with the goal of sabotaging each other’s domestic politics and seizing control of the borderland territory.46 On the other hand, if the two states are friendly to each other, then we would have a case of relatively peaceful coexistence, and the neighborhood effect on the borderland would be low, which is the case for many European states under the Schengen Agreement.47

When nation building is concerned, the neighborhood effect is closely intertwined with the state building dynamic just laid out, yet it is also conditioned upon specific ethnic group distribution and relations with external kin groups. Specifically for ethnic groups across the border, their ability to resist the nation-building projects of the respective states where they reside depends on whether they have a more powerful external kin state. If they (p.34) do not, it depends on whether they have external kin groups in neighboring states who experience better treatment than themselves (see table 2.4).

Table 2.4 The Neighborhood Effect of Nation Building on Cross-Border Ethnic Minority Groups



Ethnic minority group with external kin state

More external support

Less external support

Ethnic minority group without external kin state

More cross-border comparison

Less cross-border comparison

The first set of scenarios deals with ethnic minority groups that have external kin state relations, that is, ethnic groups straddling national borders but with linkages to external kin states. External kin states that are more powerful than the countries in which these ethnic groups reside are more likely to provide support for these ethnic groups, who would subsequently have more resources and cultural repertoires to resist the nation-building projects imposed on them by the majority ethnic group in the country where they live. This line of argument is drawn from Rogers Brubaker’s theorization of how external ethnic linkages and the support they offer for ethnic groups can fundamentally change the dynamics of nationalist politics within a country.48

In Nationalism Reframed, Brubaker introduces a conceptualization of nationalism as a triadic relationship between a nationalizing state, the substantial, self-conscious, organized, and politically alienated national minorities in the state, and the external kin state of the minority group. In this conceptualization, there is a nationalizing state, in the image of the majority group, that uses state power to promote its specific interests in ethno-cultural terms, such as giving its own language, culture, or religion official status at the national level. There is also the minority group, which tries to defend its cultural autonomy and resist the majority’s nationalizing and assimilation efforts. Furthermore, the external kin state of the minority group also purports to “monitor the condition, promote the welfare, support the activities and institutions, assert the rights, and protect the interests of ‘their’ ethnonational kin.”49 Thus, ethnic minority groups that have stronger external kin states would be better prepared to resist the nation-building project imposed on them by the nationalizing state. On the other hand, if the external kin state is similar or even weaker, then it would have much less capacity to support and (p.35) monitor the situation of the ethnic minority group, and thus would be less relevant in determining how the minority group would be able to mobilize politically.

The other set of scenarios involves ethnic groups across the borders of two neighboring states who are minorities in both, meaning they do not have external kin states. For these ethnic groups, a comparison between the different nationalist ideologies and practices they are subject to under the nation-building projects of the neighboring states will influence their evaluation of their respective living conditions and determine their preference for one situation or the other. Thus, if they perceive that their external kin groups are treated better in the neighboring state, then they are more likely to develop grievances toward the state they inhabit. In this situation, for ethnic groups that have external kin living in a more powerful and developed state, then these groups are more likely to develop negative perceptions of their home state, complain about their own situation, and subsequently demand more political representation.50 Additionally, their external kin, even though they do not have the backing of a state, might still have more resources to help their less fortunate brethren by mobilizing to support them.

Concluding Remarks

This chapter presents some illustrative statistics about the comparative state and nation building across the borderland area between China, Myanmar, and Thailand. It then proceeds to offer a novel theoretical framework to analyze the neighborhood effect of state and nation building, and how power balance and relations among neighboring states can have substantial influences on the outcome. Before we proceed to the empirical chapters discussing how this neighborhood effect plays out in this specific borderland area, the next chapter provides a historical perspective of the state and nation formation process in the three neighboring countries of China, Myanmar, and Thailand as it relates to the borderland.


(1.) John L. Campbell, “The State and Fiscal Sociology,” Annual Review of Sociology 19 (1993): 163–85; Miguel A. Centeno, Blood and Debt: War and the Nation-State in Latin America (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002); Christine Fauvelle-Aymar, “The Political and Tax Capacity of Government in Developing Countries,” Kyklos 52, no. 3 (1999): 391–413; Cameron G. Thies, “National Design and State Building in Sub-Saharan Africa,” World Politics 61, no. 4 (2009): 623–669.

(2.) World Bank Development Indicators. The data can be accessed at http://datatopics.worldbank.org/world-development-indicators/.

(3.) Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) 2009–2010, Myanmar, UNICEF. The data can be accessed at http://mics.unicef.org/surveys.

(4.) Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) 2012, Thailand, UNICEF. The data can be accessed at http://mics.unicef.org/surveys.

(5.) Keith Darden and Anna Grzymala-Busse, “The Great Divide: Literacy, Nationalism, and the Communist Collapse,” World Politics 59, no. 1 (October 2006): 83–115.

(6.) Although such ceasefire agreements can be easily broken, as demonstrated by the Myanmar central military assault on the Kokang rebel-controlled area in 2009.

(7.) Mary P. Callahan, Political Authority in Burma’s Ethnic Minority States: Devolution, Occupation, and Coexistence (Singapore; Washington, DC: East-West Center Washington, 2007).

(8.) Mandy Sadan, Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma (Oxford: British Academy, 2013).

(9.) Walton, “Ethnicity, Conflict, and History in Burma”; Matthew J. Walton, “The ‘Wages of Burman-Ness’: Ethnicity and Burman Privilege in Contemporary Myanmar,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 43, no. 1 (February 1, 2013): 1–27.

(10.) Duncan McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).

(12.) Brian Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change: Origins of Democracy and Autocracy in Early Modern Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992); Thomas Ertman, Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Edgar Kiser and April Linton, “Determinants of the Growth of the State: War and Taxation in Early Modern France and England,” Social Forces 80, no. 2 (2001): 411–48; Edgar Kiser and April Linton, “The Hinges of History: State-Making and Revolt in Early Modern France,” American Sociological Review 67, no. 6 (2002): 889–910; Tilly, The Formation of National States in Western Europe; Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In, ed. Dietrich Reuschmeyer, Theda Skocpol, and Peter Evans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985): 169–191.

(13.) Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990–1992, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992), 20.

(15.) Miguel Angel Centeno and Fernando López-Alves, eds., The Other Mirror (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); Miguel A. Centeno and Agustin E. Ferraro, eds., State and Nation Making in Latin America and Spain: Republics of the Possible, reprint ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

(17.) There is a body of literature that looks at rivalry and war preparation, rather than actual war making, in explaining state building. See Paul Diehl and Gary Goertz, War and Peace in International Rivalry (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2001); William R. Thompson, “Identifying Rivals and Rivalries in World Politics,” International Studies Quarterly 45, no. 4 (December 1, 2001): 557–86; Cameron G. Thies, “State Building, Interstate and Intrastate Rivalry: A Study of Post-Colonial Developing Country Extractive Efforts, 1975–2000,” International Studies Quarterly (p.170) 48, no. 1 (March 1, 2004): 53–72; Cameron G. Thies, “War, Rivalry, and State Building in Latin America,” American Journal of Political Science 49, no. 3 (July 1, 2005): 451–65; Cameron G. Thies, “The Political Economy of State Building in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Journal of Politics 69, no. 3 (2007): 716–31.

(18.) Jeffrey Herbst, States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control, 1st ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

(19.) Jeffrey Herbst, “War and the State in Africa,” International Security 14, no. 4 (1990): 134.

(20.) Donald L. Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Conflict, 1st ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 563–680.

(21.) Of course, there are studies that look at the development of African states as a result of how rulers at the political centers negotiate with different local elites and institutions. See Catherine Boone, Political Topographies of the African State: Territorial Authority and Institutional Choice (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Catherine Boone, Property and Political Order in Africa: Land Rights and the Structure of Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

(22.) Some historical studies look at the effect of war on state development in the Chinese context, see Edgar Kiser and Yong Cai, “War and Bureaucratization in Qin China: Exploring an Anomalous Case,” American Sociological Review 68, no. 4 (2003): 511–39; Victoria Tin-bor Hui, War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

(23.) Richard Stubbs, “War and Economic Development: Export-Oriented Industrialization in East and Southeast Asia,” Comparative Politics 31, no. 3 (1999): 377.

(24.) Richard F. Doner, Bryan K. Ritchie, and Dan Slater, “Systemic Vulnerability and the Origins of Developmental States: Northeast and Southeast Asia in Comparative Perspective,” International Organization 59, no. 2 (April 2005): 327.

(26.) For example, Andreas Forø Tollefsen and Halvard Buhaug, “Insurgency and Inaccessibility,” International Studies Review 17, no. 1 (March 1, 2015): 6–25; Halvard Buhaug and Jan Ketil Rød, “Local Determinants of African Civil Wars, 1970–2001,” Political Geography 25, no. 3 (March 2006): 315–35.

(27.) James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War,” American Political Science Review 97, no. 1 (February 2003): 75–90.

(28.) James Raymond Vreeland, “The Effect of Political Regime on Civil War: Unpacking Anocracy,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 52, no. 3 (2008): 401–25; Bethany Lacina, “Explaining the Severity of Civil Wars,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 50, no. 2 (2006): 276–89.

(29.) John E. Mueller, “Presidential Popularity from Truman to Johnson,” The American Political Science Review 64, no. 1 (1970): 18–34.

(30.) Anthony W. Marx, Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

(31.) Alberto Alesina et al., “Fractionalization,” Journal of Economic Growth 8, no. 2 (2003): 155–94; Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara, “Participation in (p.171) Heterogeneous Communities,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 115, no. 3 (August 1, 2000): 847–904; James D. Fearon, “Ethnic and Cultural Diversity by Country,” Journal of Economic Growth 8, no. 2 (June 2003): 195–222; Jose G. Montalvo and Marta Reynal-Querol, “Ethnic Diversity and Economic Development,” Journal of Development Economics 76, no. 2 (April 2005): 293–323.

(32.) Monica Duffy Toft, The Geography of Ethnic Violence: Identity, Interests, and the Indivisibility of Territory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

(33.) Frances Stewart, ed., Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict: Understanding Group Violence in Multiethnic Societies (Basingstoke, UK; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); Gudrun Østby, “Polarization, Horizontal Inequalities and Violent Civil Conflict,” Journal of Peace Research 45, no. 2 (2008): 143–62; Lars-Erik Cederman, Nils B. Weidmann, and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, “Horizontal Inequalities and Ethnonationalist Civil War: A Global Comparison,” American Political Science Review 105, no. 3 (August 2011): 478–495.

(34.) Andreas Wimmer, Lars-Erik Cederman, and Brian Min, “Ethnic Politics and Armed Conflict: A Configurational Analysis of a New Global Data Set,” American Sociological Review 74, no. 2 (2009): 316–37; Manuel Vogt et al., “Integrating Data on Ethnicity, Geography, and Conflict The Ethnic Power Relations Data Set Family,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 59, no. 7 (October 1, 2015): 1327–42.

(35.) Myron Weiner, “Bad Neighbors, Bad Neighborhoods,” International Security 21, no. 1 (July 1, 1996): 26.

(36.) Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, All International Politics Is Local: The Diffusion of Conflict, Integration, and Democratization (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002); Idean Salehyan and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, “Refugees and the Spread of Civil War,” International Organization 60, no. 2 (April 2006): 335–366; Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, “Transnational Dimensions of Civil War,” Journal of Peace Research 44, no. 3 (2007): 293–309; Nicholas Sambanis, “Do Ethnic and Nonethnic Civil Wars Have the Same Causes?” Journal of Conflict Resolution 45, no. 3 (June 2001): 259–82.

(37.) Suda Perera, “Alternative Agency: Rwandan Refugee Warriors in Exclusionary States,” Conflict, Security & Development 13, no. 5 (December 1, 2013): 569–88; Séverine Autesserre, The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

(38.) Idean Salehyan, “Transnational Rebels: Neighboring States as Sanctuary for Rebel Groups,” World Politics 59, no. 2 (2007): 223.

(39.) Daniel Unger, “Ain’t Enough Blanket: International Humanitarian Assistance and Cambodian Political Resistance,” in Refugee Manipulation: War, Politics, and the Abuse of Human Suffering, ed. Stephen Stedman and Fred Tanner (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003): 17–56; Melissa Lee, “The International Politics of Incomplete Sovereignty: How Hostile Neighbors Weaken the State,” International Organization 72, no. 2 (2018): 283–315.

(40.) Jacob D. Kathman, “Civil War Contagion and Neighboring Interventions,” International Studies Quarterly 54, no. 4 (2010): 989.

(42.) Here I treat power capabilities quite broadly to include military, economic, geographic, and demographic elements.

(43.) The caveat is that the different scenarios discussed here are by no means overly determining. In fact, such interactive dynamics can create different types of responses from neighboring states, which might be correlated with other factors, some domestic and others international.

(44.) Gerhard L. Weinberg, Hitler’s Foreign Policy 1933–1939: The Road to World War II (New York: Enigma Books, 2005); Zara Steiner, The Triumph of the Dark: European International History 1933–1939, rep. ed. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

(45.) M. Coleman, “U.S. Statecraft and the U.S.–Mexico Border as Security/Economy Nexus,” Political Geography 24, no. 2 (February 2005): 185–209; Peter Andreas, Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide, 2nd ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009); Pablo Vila, Crossing Borders, Reinforcing Borders: Social Categories, Metaphors and Narrative Identities on the U.S.-Mexico Frontier (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000).

(46.) Salehyan, “Transnational Rebels,” 225; Dilip Hiro, The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict (London: Routledge, 1990).

(47.) Ruben Zaiotti, Cultures of Border Control: Schengen and the Evolution of European Frontiers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

(49.) Brubaker, 6.