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Social Sci LibreTexts

9.1: The Physical Landscape of East and Southeast Asia

  • Page ID
    21102
  • Learning Objectives

    • Identify the key geographic features of East and Southeast Asia
    • Explain how East and Southeast Asia’s history has affected its geographic landscape
    • Describe the patterns of economic development in East and Southeast Asia
    • Analyze how East and Southeast Asia interacts within the global economic system

    East and Southeast Asia (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)) contains the world’s most populous country, the most populous metropolitan area, and some of the world’s oldest civilizations. It is also a region with intense internal disparities and a landscape that has been and continues to be transformed by physical, political, and economic forces. Although East and Southeast Asia are often divided into two regions, they share a common economic and political history and global geopolitical forces continue to transform this realm.

    clipboard_eb4eccf0d3b714b810189b0e0754f13d7.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map of East and Southeast Asia (CIA World Factbook, Public Domain)

    The region of East and Southeast Asia is divided from the rest of Asia by a number of formidable physical barriers (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). In the north, Mongolia’s Altay Mountains, the Mongolian Plateau, and the Gobi Desert separate the region from Russia. In the south, the Himalaya Mountains divide China from South Asia and contain the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest. These mountains are so high, in fact, that they form the Gobi Desert by preventing rainfall from passing over South Asia into Central Asia. In the southeast, the Arkan Mountains and Naga Hills, which stretch across Myanmar and India, and the rolling hills of China’s Yunnan Plateau separate Southeast Asia from the rest of the continent. In general, this is a realm of relatively high relief, meaning there are significant changes in elevation on the landscape. Even the islands of this region have a rugged topography, from Japan’s Mount Fuji to Indonesia’s Mount Carstensz.

    clipboard_eadfdc7fa9e5d3e3892e2c1198e32c360.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Physical Map of East and Southeast Asia (CIA World Factbook, Public Domain)

    The rivers of this region have supported both ancient cultures and modern societies providing irrigation for agriculture, river transportation, and in some cases, hydropower. Asia’s longest river, the Yangtze, flows through central China; the economic activity surrounding its river valley generates around one-fifth of the entire country’s gross domestic product (GDP). In 2003, the Chinese government built the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric power station, which spans the river. China’s other major river, the Huang He River, also known as the Yellow River, flows through the highlands of Western China before discharging in Northeastern China. It was on the banks of the Huang He that Chinese civilization first began. In Southeast Asia, the region is dominated by the Mekong and Irrawaddy Rivers. The Mekong River, one of the most biodiverse rivers in the world, has been heavily dammed, impacting the area’s ecology, and plans are underway to dam the Irrawaddy in several places. In addition, both the Mekong and the Irrawaddy originate in China, presenting issues over river flow and ownership.

    Although the construction of the region’s numerous dams has provided reliable power, they’ve been met with significant social and ecological impacts. The Three Gorges Dam, for example, was an unprecedented engineering marvel and will reduce the potential for downstream flooding, but flooding from the creation of the dam displaced over one million people and significantly reduced forest area around the river.

    Most of the region’s people live in the more temperate climate zones. In East Asia, for example, the coastal regions of Central and Southern China, Japan, and South Korea are primarily a humid temperate climate. Southeast Asia is largely tropical with ample rainfall throughout the year. The exception to these relatively warm areas are Western China, where the cold highland climate dominates, and Northeastern Asia is quite cold due to its high northern latitude.

    The region’s physical landscape has significantly affected its agricultural practices. The banks of East and Southeast Asia’s rivers provided early settlers with fertile soil, and even today, provide agricultural irrigation. The region’s hilly terrain, though initially an obstacle to agricultural productivity, inspired innovations such as terracing, cutting a series of flat surfaces resembling steps on hillsides. China in particular continues to be a global leader in terms of agricultural production.

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