Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sports, symbolism, and international leverage: The Southeast Asian Games

Simon Creek has an insightful article up dissecting this year's Southeast Asian Games: "Little Laos awaits its big moment." From a symbolic interaction standpoint, the article exemplifies how this and other international sporting events serve as proclaimed evidence that the host country is prepared to make its mark in the international economy.

This is not just a sports event, but probably the biggest state extravaganza in the country's history since the Lao People's Democratic Republic [LPRP] gained independence from France in July 1949.


Despite the difference in scale, there are parallels to the Summer Olympic Games held in China last year. Just as Beijing leveraged the event to proclaim China's emergence as a global power, the games in Vientiane represent a regional coming-out for the Lao one-party state, a symbolic culmination of the over three decade-long "revolutionary struggle" for independence and development under the LPRP.

Perhaps more importantly, the piece also details how other Southeast Asian and East Asian countries have used these Games as an avenue to expand their industrial base across borders. With Laos unable to finance the Games themselves, it appears more powerful countries have taken advantage of Laos's underprivileged position in the region. This in effect allows countries like China to broker their way onto Laotian soil.

Most symbolically, perhaps, Laos is able to host the games only through massive assistance from its larger, richer allies in the region. The Chinese Development Bank has provided financing for the US$100 million main stadium complex, which is being built by Chinese contractors on the outskirts of the capital, Vientiane.

A Vietnamese company has built the $19 million athletes' village and Thai funds have been used to refurbish the existing National Stadium. Dozens of smaller financial agreements with countries like Japan and South Korea will provide everything from training to tracksuits.

There are good reasons for these countries to contribute their patronage. First is the simple commercial benefit. In return for building the stadium, Chinese developers were reportedly granted 1,640 hectares of prime land near the That Luang stupa, the national symbol, on which to develop a
"Chinatown" complex in Vientiane. The Vietnamese company that funded the athletes' village is opening a wood-processing factory and hotel in Laos.

Second is regional influence. Thailand, Vietnam and China have long competed for influence in Laos. While socialist Vietnam has held political sway since the 1975 revolution, China has aggressively expanded its economic presence and soft power in the region, and some in the government, notably the Chinese-educated Somsavat, have increasingly turned to the regional

One can see here the strategies more powerful countries use when hoping to nudge transnational business onto less powerful countries' land. The symbolic power of the sporting event is used by higher-income countries to spread their economic infrastructure across borders (note the link between symbolic interaction and conflict theory).

Once this year's Southeast Asian Games and all the hoopla are over, one has to wonder how Chinese, Thai, South Korean, and Japanese economic expansion into Laos will affect the Laotian people. History suggests, not so well.

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