Part of Where to Bet Now

Six Markets to Watch: The Mekong Region

A River Runs Through It

Trade flows: borders converging on the Mekong River. (Sukree Sukplang / Courtesy Reuters)

Mainland Southeast Asia -- long fought over and controlled by outside powers, from the colonial era through the Cold War -- is finally fending for itself, and then some. Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, which were once French Indochina, have grown at an impressive clip in recent years, with the last two taking their cues from China to blend communism and capitalism. Myanmar (also called Burma), once part of British India, is rapidly opening up to trade and foreign investment after decades of insular military dictatorship. And Thailand, the only Southeast Asian country never to have been taken over by a European colonial power, has proved resilient despite its prolonged political discord, humming along as the region’s manufacturing, tourism, and service-sector hub.

Even as mainland Southeast Asia moves forward, it is beginning to resemble, in a curious way, parts of its precolonial past, when its mainly Buddhist peoples freely crisscrossed the region in search of better lives, mixing across ethnic and linguistic lines. As trade barriers fall and borders open up, people and commerce are moving more freely throughout the region, which also includes China’s southern Yunnan Province. Yunnan’s economy and culture have become inextricably linked to these five countries, as they were in centuries past.

Understanding the region’s promise requires a grasp of not just its growing interconnectedness but also its demographics. Together, the mainland Southeast Asian economies now constitute a consumer and labor market of over 300 million people, with rising incomes and a combined GDP that could exceed $1 trillion by 2020. Add in maritime Southeast Asia -- Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore -- and you get the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 46-year-old bloc that is home to a combined GDP of over $2.2 trillion and 620 million people. ASEAN’s members have young, working-age populations and an abundance of natural resources, from land suitable for agriculture and timber to vast mineral deposits and considerable oil and gas reserves. With greater economic integration planned for 2015, the countries of mainland Southeast Asia will enter a new era of promise and prosperity.

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