Back to Know Your World

Malaysia’s Malacca Strait Mosque sits exactly where its name suggests, and its backdrop is not normally so picturesque. The Strait of Malacca is bar none the world’s busiest waterway. Nearly all trade between Europe and East Asia, as well as all energy sales from the Middle East to East Asia, sails by the mosque.

The greater Malacca region has a bit of everything. Sharply split populations in Thailand and Vietnam. Crushing poverty in Laos and Borneo. Sparkling skylines in Singapore. Rich cosmopolitanism in Bangkok. Brutal rule in Thailand. Lively democracy in the Philippines. Vast empty zones in Sumatra facing 120 million people in Java. There is something here for everyone.

Despite its heterogeneity, this is not a region that will ever suffer the degree of military conflict that has defined European, Russian, Arab and Chinese history. Southeast Asia’s coasts are muddy and low, and so until the late industrial age, most of the region’s cultures lived inland. This insulated them not just from the European empires, but also from one another. Even today their difficult topography – marked by jungles and mountains – keeps their governments busy with the affairs of the people rather than fearing for their safety (or dreaming of conquest).

Their location on Malacca and that characteristic makes them – all of them – ideal partners for the United States, even in a world that no longer enjoys free trade.

For more on Southeast Asia and its role in a changing world, see Chapter 9 of The Accidental Superpower