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Southeast Asia has one of the world’s oddest settlement patterns. Extensive coasts are not matched by extensive coastal populations. The combinations of the tropical climates, shallow coastal waters or lack of coastal plains have all pushed most of the regional populations inland.

That is changing. The industrial age may have come late to this part of the world, but rail and road now are linking the pre-industrial cities to the coast. This too results in an atypical settlement pattern. Unique among the world’s major regions, Southeast Asia enjoys almost no land-based infrastructure linking its various components together – its people interact almost exclusively via sea lanes.

Two partial exceptions to the above are worthy of note. The first is Thailand. Bangkok is a coastal city as cosmopolitan as any, and the relative ease of access to its interior to the north and northeast gives it something that no other spot in the region can boast: an easily-defensible and exploitable hinterland.

The second is Myanmar. The coastal city of Yangon sits on the delta of the Irrawaddy River, the only river in the region that is navigable. If not for the Myanmarese government’s decision to isolate itself for the past 30 years, Myanmar would be every bit as economically dynamic as Thailand. That isolation now is ending, as will the lack of dynamism soon.

This pair of atypical states in an atypical region stands to be a major economic powerhouse of the next two decades.

For more, see Chapter 9 in The Accidental Superpower.

 

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