GEOG101 Study Guide

Unit 11: Southeast Asia

11a. Describe the geographical differences between the mainland and insular regions of Southeast Asia

  • What feature separates the mainland and insular regions of Southeast Asia?
  • What distinguishes Laos from the other countries of mainland Southeast Asia?
  • What makes it more challenging to govern some of the insular countries in contrast to the mainland countries?

The South China Sea separates the mainland and insular regions of Southeast Asia. The mainland region of Southeast Asia includes Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and the landlocked country of Laos. The insular region includes Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Philippines, and Timor-Leste (East Timor). Both regions are predominantly tropical. The insular region is particularly vulnerable to the hazards associated with tectonic activity.

Three of the countries in the insular region span numerous islands and, in the case of Malaysia, straddle the mainland and insular regions. Malaysia extends from the Malay Peninsula in the west, across the South China Sea, to the island of Borneo in the east. Indonesia is the world's largest island country and includes over seventeen thousand islands. The Philippines includes over 7,500 islands. Given the challenges associated with governing a country separated by large bodies of water, some countries such as Indonesia have chosen to grant some provinces more autonomy.

Review the section on Physical Geography in Introducing the Realm.


11b. Summarize how Southeast Asia was colonized

  • What European and East Asian powers colonized the realm of Southeast Asia?
  • Although it was not colonized, how did France and Britain use Thailand?

The potential for trade motivated Portugal and Spain to reach Southeast Asia in the sixteenth century, followed by the Netherlands, Britain, and France. Japan sought more territory for its population, occupying much of Southeast Asia during World War II including Thailand, which was not colonized by European powers. Although Britain controlled Myanmar to the west and France controlled Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos to the east, Thailand was left as a buffer between the two.

There is evidence today of the influence of colonial powers in the realm of Southeast Asia in the following examples.

  • English is a recognized language in Malaysia and an official language in Singapore, both former British colonies.
  • Many buildings in Vietnam's cities are in the French architectural style.
  • Catholicism, which the Spanish and Portuguese brought, is still the dominant religion of the Philippines and Timor-Leste, respectively.
  • French remains one of the spoken languages in Laos, and Portuguese is an official language in Timor-Leste.
  • There are a number of Dutch words that were adopted by Indonesians and continue to be used.

Review the section on Impact of Colonialism in Introducing the Realm.


11c. Describe the diversity of ethnic and religious affiliations of Southeast Asia

  • What country is home to the largest population of Muslims in the world?
  • What religion dominates the mainland region of Southeast Asia?
  • Why does the diversity of ethnicities continue to thrive in the insular region of Southeast Asia?

Muslim traders from the Arabian Peninsula likely brought Islam to Indonesia prior to European colonization through spatial diffusion. Islam is also the dominant religion of Malaysia. Sunni Islam is the most common form practiced in these countries. Buddhism is the most commonly practiced religion among the people of the mainland region. These countries practice Theravada Buddhism, which is sometimes called Southern Buddhism, and is also practiced in Sri Lanka, a country in the realm of South Asia.

Globalization has blurred the differences between cultures as it becomes easier to move from one location to another regardless of distance. The insular region of Southeast Asia remains one of the exceptions. It is more difficult to move from island to island than it is to move within a large landmass. Thus, differences are more likely to remain intact and even increase. Diversity can, however, also thrive on a single island due to barriers in the physical geography, which can prevent movement. For example, the island of New Guinea, with the western portion under Indonesian control, is home to hundreds of ethnic groups.

Review the section on Cultural Introduction in Introducing the Realm.


11d. Explain the influence of overseas Chinese people in Southeast Asia

  • Why are there more overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia than any other realm?
  • What role have overseas Chinese played in the economic development of Southeast Asian countries?

Due to Southeast Asia's proximity to China, it is not surprising that more overseas Chinese live there than anywhere else. For example, more than 75% of Singapore's population and almost 25% of Malaysia's population are ethnically Chinese. Many Chinese fled the political division on mainland China between 1912 and 1949. The overseas Chinese population has maintained ties to their homeland, making economic connections possible in the age of globalization. Their ability to communicate in the languages of their homeland and their adopted country facilitates business opportunities

Review the section on Overseas Chinese in Introducing the Realm.


11e. Describe how Vietnam was divided by civil war and the effect the war had on the country

  • What prevented Vietnam from unifying under one government in the mid-1950s?
  • Why did the United States choose to intervene in Vietnam?
  • Describe Vietnam's economic development since the war.

As a site of competing colonial interests, Vietnam had long been pulled in different directions. By the time Vietnam defeated the French, there were, understandably, competing visions for how to move Vietnam forward, thus, preventing unification.

  • To the north, a Communist ideology was gaining traction, whereas to the south, the preference was for democracy and a free-market economy
  • The international community picked sides, escalating the stakes in the war between the Communist faction in the north, supported by the USSR, and the non-Communist faction to the south, supported by the United States
  • The United States and its allies feared the spread of Communism, the domino theory; if Vietnam fell, so would its neighbors.

The Vietnam War lasted twenty years, ending in 1975 with the North Vietnamese taking Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), the capital of South Vietnam. In 1976, North and South Vietnam became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Since the war, Vietnam has recovered slowly. It has a mixed economy, with the government playing a key role in the country's economic development. Although Vietnam remains largely engaged in primary and secondary sector activities, it is undergoing a rural-to-urban migration shift with more tertiary sector activities including tourism. Its neighbors in the East Asian realm have turned to Vietnam as a source of cheap labor.

Review the section on Vietnam in The Mainland Countries.


11f. Explain how the rural, landlocked country of Laos is addressing its economic situation

  • What features dominate Laos' physical landscape?
  • How is Laos able to improve its infrastructure?

Laos is a country of rugged, forested mountains and the only landlocked country in the realm of Southeast Asia. The Mekong River forms much of Laos' western border. Thus, most people live there to take advantage of the low relief and agricultural potential of the floodplain. The Mekong links Laos to the outside world and has tied it closely to its western neighbor, Thailand.

Although the Mekong mitigates some of Laos' isolation beyond its borders, connections within its borders are poor. The Vietnam War damaged what little infrastructure Laos had. The World Bank, among other organizations, is supporting Laos' efforts to improve electrical, water, sanitation, and communication infrastructure. China is helping Laos to increase rail access throughout the country.

Review the section on Laos in The Mainland Countries.


11g. Describe the conditions that led to the creation of Democratic Kampuchea

  • How did the Vietnam War contribute to the Khmer Rouge's rise to power in Cambodia?
  • What role did China play in Democratic Kampuchea?

Cambodia was caught up in the Vietnam War due to its proximity to Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge, a Cambodian rebel faction espousing Communist ideology, gained the support of the Vietnamese communists to overthrow the government. Thus, the Khmer Rouge took advantage of the chaos of the Vietnam War to seize control of Cambodia. Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, fell to the Khmer Rouge shortly after the United States withdrew from Cambodia in 1975. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, renamed Cambodia Democratic Kampuchea in 1976.

China's disastrous Great Leap Forward program inspired Pol Pot's vision for Democratic Kampuchea. When the Khmer Rouge took control, the cities were evacuated and the residents forced to live in the countryside to create an "agrarian utopia". Under Pol Pot's three-year reign of terror, intellectuals, ethnic minorities, and anyone who dissented were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Although the international community largely condemned the Khmer Rouge regime, China continued to provide support.

Review the section on Cambodia in The Mainland Countries


11h. Describe the physical geography of Thailand and how it has developed economically

  • Why is Thailand's population density lower in the north and west?
  • What landform separates the Andaman Sea to the west from the Gulf of Thailand to the east?
  • What physical features contribute to Thailand's agricultural production and strong tourism industry?

Thailand is an unusually shaped country with varied topography.

  • It is mountainous in the north and along the western border, extending into the Malay Peninsula, so population density is lower in these areas. 
  • The mountains actually form the Kra Isthmus, the narrow strip of land that connects mainland Asia with the Malay Peninsula and separates the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. Thailand shares the isthmus with its western neighbor, Myanmar.
  • Most people live on the Khorat Plateau overlooking the Mekong River to the east or in the vast Chao Phraya river valley that dominates central Thailand.
  • The city of Bangkok is located where the Chao Phraya empties into the Gulf of Thailand.

Thailand's landscape and climate make it a major rice exporter. Its tropical coastlines with numerous beaches are a popular destination for tourists.

Review the section on Thailand in The Mainland Countries.


11i. Discuss how Singapore became an "economic tiger"

  • Explain why Singapore is an entrepôt for Southeast Asia.
  • How has Singapore compensated for its small size and lack of natural resources?
  • Describe Singapore's economic relationship with Malaysia and Indonesia.

Singapore has made the most of its geographic location by serving as an entrepôt, a port where goods are imported, stored, traded, and/or exported.

  • It is a gateway for goods much as an airport hub serves to distribute overseas passengers to smaller, regional airports.
  • Although Singapore is a free-market economy, it maintains tight control over economic development to encourage foreign investment, including authoritarian-like policies to maintain social stability.
  • It participates in a trade triangle with Malaysia and Indonesia to compensate for its lack of raw materials and inexpensive labor. For example, Singapore receives crude oil from Indonesia, refines it, and then ships it to global markets.
  • Due to the high percentage of ethnic Chinese, foreign corporations view Singapore as providing both geographic and cultural access to China.

In addition to its role as an entrepôt, Singapore has also compensated for its size and lack of resources by focusing on manufacturing goods with high profit margins such as electronics.

Review the section on Singapore in The Insular Region.


11j. Describe the physical geography of Indonesia and the population dynamics of the island of Java

  • Provide examples of Indonesia's natural hazards.
  • What are the factors that contribute to Indonesia's biodiversity?
  • Describe the island of Java in terms of human population.

Indonesia is an archipelago, a group of islands. It is the largest island country in the world by area and population. Its land area is comparable to Mexico's.

  • Indonesia spans a series of volcanic islands that are the result of the collision of several tectonic plates. As part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia is tectonically active.
  • It has more than seventy active volcanoes and experiences daily earthquakes, which can trigger tsunamis. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake triggered tsunami waves that devastated the city of Banda Aceh on Indonesia's island of Sumatra.

Indonesia's archipelagic geography and tropical location make it second only to Brazil in terms of biodiversity. Proximity to the Equator increases species diversity, and the remoteness of islands fosters the evolution of endemic species, species that are not found anywhere else in the world.

Indonesia's capital is Jakarta, which is on the island of Java. More than half of Indonesia's population lives on Java, making it the most populous island and one of the most densely populated places in the world. At 1,200 people per square kilometer, Java's population density is comparable to Bangladesh's. From the 1970s to the late 1990s, the Indonesian government sought to reduce the population of Java by relocating people to less populous islands.

Review the section on Indonesia in The Insular Region.


11k. Summarize the cultural and economic characteristics of the Philippines

  • Explain why the Philippines is ethnically diverse.
  • Why has the Philippines become attractive to global corporations?

The Philippines is an archipelago of over 7,000 islands. The inhabited islands are home to many different ethnolinguistic groups and indigenous peoples. The ethnic diversity of the Philippines has also been influenced by immigrants from Spain, China, Japan, and the United States, among others. Thus, between its fragmented geography and ethnic diversity, the culture of the Philippines is necessarily rich.

The Philippines has attracted the attention of global corporations interested in business process outsourcing (BPO) because it is politically stable and there is a qualified labor force.

  • The United States' military presence in the Philippines fostered English as a lingua franca.
  • Employment costs are low in the Philippines.
  • In addition to speaking English, many Filipinos are educated and have professional skills.
  • The Philippines is politically stable.

BPO can include a range of functions such as payment processing, technical support, and sales, among others. Many corporations from around the world are, for example, locating their call centers in the Philippines to take advantage of the cost savings. India and Singapore are also sites of offshore outsourcing.

Review the section on the Philippines in The Insular Region.


Unit 11 Vocabulary

This vocabulary list includes terms that students need to know to successfully complete the final exam for the course.

  • Andaman Sea
  • archipelagic geography
  • archipelago
  • Banda Aceh
  • Bangkok
  • biodiversity
  • Borneo
  • British colonies 
  • Brunei 
  • Buddhism
  • business process outsourcing (BPO)
  • Cambodia
  • Catholicism
  • Chao Phraya
  • Communist ideology 
  • democracy 
  • Democratic Kampuchea
  • domino theory
  • Dutch 
  • East Asian realm 
  • economic connections 
  • endemic species
  • entrepôt
  • Equator 
  • free-market economy
  • French
  • global markets
  • Great Leap Forward 
  • Indonesia 
  • insular regions 
  • Islam
  • Jakarta
  • Java 
  • Khmer Rouge
  • Khorat Plateau
  • Kra Isthmus
  • Laos
  • mainland region 
  • Malay Peninsula
  • Malaysia 
  • Mekong River 
  • mixed economy
  • Muslim traders 
  • Myanmar 
  • New Guinea
  • offshore outsourcing
  • Pacific Ring of Fire
  • Phillipines 
  • Phnom Penh
  • Pol Pot
  • political division
  • politically stable 
  • rebel faction
  • rural-to-urban migration
  • Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
  • Singapore 
  • Socialist Republic of Vietnam
  • South China Sea
  • Southeast Asia
  • spatial diffusion
  • Sumatra 
  • Sunni Islam 
  • Thailand 
  • Theravada Buddhism (Southern Buddhism)
  • The World Bank
  • Timor-Leste
  • trade 
  • trade triangle
  • tropical location 
  • United States 
  • USSR
  • Vietnam 
  • Vietnam War