Literature on special economic zones (SEZs) has made important contributions to our understanding of globalization and topics including labor rights, export-led development outcomes, and post-socialist experiments with market economies. Less understood is the geopolitics of contemporary economic zones. This article focuses on border economies and state activity regarding territorial integrity and regulation of migrant labor. The case studies in Cambodia and Thailand demonstrate that SEZs reflect, reinforce and expand states’ reach, rather than prove exception to broader national orders of power. This understanding of contemporary SEZs enhances research agendas on state practices vis-à-vis the ‘imperatives’ of global economic integration and geopolitics. The changing role of SEZs in economic globalization reveals the complexity of state spatial practices.