Since the early 2000s, global production networks (GPN) research has fundamentally addressed the global-local tensions first identified in Peter Dicken's Roepke Lecture in Economic Geography. As one major scholarly pillar of economic geography by the early 2020s, GPN research has undergone two phases of significant theoretical development, transiting from the earlier broad and general GPN framework to the more recent and explanatory GPN 2.0 theory. During this exciting period of theory development in GPN research, a key and novel concept of “strategic coupling” was first developed in Coe et al. and substantially further refined in Yeung. By today, this new concept has become one of human geography’s competitive “exports” to the social sciences at large! Interestingly and despite its substantial influence and governance typology, the global value chain approach does not offer a similar kind of core concept.
In retrospect, the discovery of “strategic coupling” and its further conceptual development was serendipitous in nature, when several of us became frustrated with then the rather inward-looking debate about endogenous learning and new regionalism in economic geography and regional studies. Ann Markusen found many concepts in this new regionalism literature rather fuzzy and hard to operationalize in empirical research. We wanted to “globalize” this inward-looking approach to regional transformation and thus the concept was “born”, as part of GPN 1.0 framework, to describe how and why the global can be strategically “coupled” with the local through global production networks. In my book Strategic Coupling, I demonstrate much further the concept's empirical efficacy in explaining the industrial transformation of East Asian economies in the new global economy. Again, my aim was to challenge the predominant and inward-looking narrative that this transformation had been driven primarily by the developmental state in East Asia.
Throughout the 2010s and thereafter, the concept “strategic coupling” has been hotly debated within the broad fields of economic geography, regional studies, international political economy, international business studies, and development studies. Many empirical studies across the social sciences and in East Asian studies have found the concept relevant to their diverse empirical analyses and explanations of local, regional, and national developmental trajectories in the changing world economy. In particular, most of these studies have deployed the concept to account for investment and technological linkages between local and foreign firms, cluster formation and evolution, industrial upgrading and regional change, transformations in local and regional innovation systems, urban and regional restructuring under globalization, and so on. These inter-disciplinary studies have not only added much empirical validity to the concept itself and the broader GPN 2.0 theory, but also provided further opportunities for us to take the concept to new domains and intellectual heights.
In this spirit of the broadening appeal and relevance of “strategic coupling”, I have titled this editorial as “Towards global economic geographies” to encourage a more global understanding of the changing realities of economies geographies-defined both as an intellectual discipline within human geography and as the empirical world in which economic activities take place. As an intellectual discipline, global economic geographies is becoming particularly vibrant in the early 2020s. There is now a great deal of convergence of conceptual work on evolutionary economic geography, GPN research, financial geographies, and labour geographies. These are exciting times for highly productive cross-fertilizations in our collective intellectual endeavours.
The empirical papers in this special issue of Geographical Research illustrate very well such strong tendencies towards integrated theoretical framing that draws upon not only the concept “strategic coupling” and GPN 2.0 theory, but also cutting-edge ideas in evolutionary economic geography, financial geographies, and labour geographies. The variegated empirical contexts of China also provide different sub-national “laboratories” that enable such cross-fertilizations to demonstrate their empirical relevance. The next step, though, is for these studies and voices from China to “speak back” to those fields within global economic geographies and, if possible, to add more theoretical contributions through what George Lin and I termed “theorizing back” almost two decades ago. I am happy to see that this special issue has systematically introduced and interpreted on the theorization of GPN 2.0. In line with two previous papers published in this journal about the progress of relational economic geography, the theories about strategic coupling have been well articulated for economic geographers in China.
As the always-changing empirical world, global economic geographies in the 2020s are undergoing fundamental transformations due to several recent and unprecedented challenges, from the Covid-19 pandemic to rising geopolitical tensions and severe disruptions to global supply chains and global production networks. All of these changing global economic geographies provide enormous possibilities for us not only to test our existing theories and concepts, but also to identify new ideas and thinking. As I have argued in a forthcoming book, the interconnected worlds of yesteryear's global economic geographies might be giving way to, or intertwined with, the unexpected reversal of economic globalization and the incessant demand for regional and national resilience in a world of heightened uncertainty. These empirical trends towards localization and regionalization in global economic geographies will likely kickstart new rounds of strategic (de)couplings worldwide such that the restless landscape of contemporary capitalism, as argued a longtime ago in Storper and Walker's The Capitalist Imperative, will be reshaped and reorganized again. This time though, I believe East Asia, and China in particular, may well take the lead to re-Orient the global economy in its image.
Looking forward, I hope readers of this special issue will gain both theoretical and empirical insights from these 15 well-crafted papers that address China's strategic coupling with the global economy in relation to its local and regional resilience, industrial and social upgrading, foreign investment and labour market dynamics, external trade and GPN risks, the challenge of technological innovation and intellectual property, building urban and regional clusters, and so on. As Chairman Mao said in his 1957 address in Beijing, “Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend”. I believe the original concept “strategic coupling” and thereafter GPN 2.0 theory might well be one such flower and school of thought that can be much further contended through our collective research in and on global economic geographies. May thousand flowers blossom!