National Boundaries Make Little Geographical or Economic Sense Nowadays

1 January 2017

National boundaries have long been in place in human history, with the main intention of using them to control or restrict movement of people, commodities, capital or information into or out of a country. However, as the world steps into the 21st century and becomes more globalised and interconnected, many start to wonder if the power that the state once held is now diminished by the forces of globalisation. Some even question the significance of national borders in today’s world as they become increasingly permeable due to intensified world-wide connections and time- space compression.

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In order to judge if this claim is true, several key factors have to be taken into consideration. Do time-space compression and technological advancement inevitably bring about effects that weaken the position of a state geographically and economically? Do supranational bodies such as the United Nations and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) play a part in blurring the need for such borders? Will national pride and government control override all these other factors, invalidating the claim that national boundaries are no longer essential?

After much consideration and deliberation, I strongly believe that the importance of national borders has been diminished to a large extent but there are other factors such as national security that will still uphold the significance of having national boundaries. With the emerging force of globalisation, countries all around the world have grown to be more independent, consequently resulting in an inevitable increase in economic integration via trade, foreign investments and immigration.

Statistics from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development have confirmed this phenomenon: foreign direct investment, for example, grew by an average annual rate of 34 percent in the 1980s and early 1990s. This trend continued throughout the 1990s, facilitated by the pervasive tendency towards the removal of barriers to capital flows. Also in 2004, a total of US$47881 million flowed seamlessly around Asian countries as foreign direct investment. Furthermore, the number of multinational companies outsourcing and off shoring has also been sky-rocketing over these years.

Evidently, the dramatic increase in the scale and reach such companies and transnational flows of capital have undermined the ability of the state to regulate economic activities across borders over the past three decades. On the other hand, from a geographical point of view, time-space shrinking technologies and modernisation in transportation have allowed the easy movement of people from one country to another. Technology has shortened travel time from months to just mere hours and this has inevitably resulted in the increased mobility of people.

A simple illustration would be the brain-drain problem faced by Singapore. It is not uncommon to hear people at all levels of the Singapore society complain about the outward flow of talents to global cities such as New York and London. With so much freedom and choice provided for immigration, people who were originally citizens of one country can easily switch nationalities or even take up multiple permanent residencies, resulting in national boundaries losing their geographical importance.

Besides having a homogenising economic impact on the world, globalisation has also brought about the establishment of supranational bodies, thus affecting states politically. More often than not, such supranational institutions are often blamed for eroding the traditional sovereign authority of the world’s approximately two hundred states. Such bodies like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have aggravated the problem that borders no longer function as parameters in which citizenship rights are exercised.

The democratic principles which assume that citizens participate in the decisions which affect their lives, and that governments are accountable to those they govern, are increasingly difficult to sustain in circumstances where so many decisions affecting a state and its population occur beyond its borders. A perfect example would be the Structural Adjustment Programmes initiated by the IMF. The conditionality attached to these programmes is a clear example of policies within the borders of a state being decisively influenced by an outside agency, over which citizens have no rights.

The increased internationalisation of political decision-making in supranational forums only magnifies this de facto loss of citizenship rights, creating a sharp disjuncture between the principles and practices of democratic, state-based citizenship, which will in turn result in a devastating geographical impact on a country. Champions of the opposite camp often assert that national borders still have a great influence geographically and economically today, especially when a country is dealing with its national security or identity.

An example would be the “Total Defence Scheme” carried out by various nations like Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark and Singapore to deal with external threats like terrorism and economic crises. In Sweden, this system comprises mainly military and civil defence to defend Sweden against armed attacks and strengthen the Swedish society in times of severe peacetime emergencies. National identity and pride can also be demonstrated even more clearly in territorial disputes and this can be epitomised through the twenty nine-year dispute between Malaysia and Singapore over Pedra Branca.

The amount of resources and manpower spent on such disputes undoubtedly prove that national borders are far from trivial. Although this may seem to be an irrefutable claim, these critics fail to see that such disputes over national borders are merely dealt by government agencies and they have little effect on society itself. Moreover, critics may also argue that government intervention can have significant control over cashless transactions made between countries. In order to protect a country’s own economy, governments may impose tariffs on other countries or even go to the extreme of enforcing trade embargos.

Such an assertion may be true but it overlooks the glaring fact of the rising power of trading blocs. With about thirty trading blocs today, the power of the state has been greatly crippled. For example, the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement between USA, Canada and Mexico and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Free Trade Agreement (ASEAN FTA) have eliminated trade barriers and increased borderless investment opportunities between these countries.

The fact that ASEAN FTA has generated a combined Gross Domestic Product growth of 5. % annually since 2004 signifies that such borderless transactions are now starting to be in favour. Moreover, besides affecting countries economically, trading blocs such as the European Union have also changed the geographical dynamics of a country as countries in the EU are now politically integrated, following the same system of governance. All in all, it is obvious that the significance that national boundaries once held is starting to deteriorate gradually overtime as countries progress towards a more integrated world.

However it may be incorrect to hastily conclude that that the strength of state borders is now decreasing as the world heads towards globalisation since there are still aspects where national boundaries are highly essential like in the case of national security. Nonetheless I can say with no fear of contradiction that in the long run, the position and authority of national boundaries may be threatened by globalisation, thereby causing national borders to have little geographical or economic sense in the future.

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