Pirates, States, and Diplomacy in a Multipolar Maritime Asia

Classroom Simulation Exercise

This page is intended as a brief introduction to a multi-part teaching exercise designed by Adam Clulow and Xing Hang for use in the classroom. The exercise simulates the complex, multipolar maritime world of East and Southeast Asia in the second half of the seventeenth century. Students take on separate roles as representatives of armed maritime powers like the Zheng or the Dutch East India Company, continental agrarian powers like Tokugawa Japan or Qing China and continental trading powers like Ayutthaya (Siam). The exercise is split into three parts ideally divided across the same number of classes. For each stage, students are presented with a series of objectives and priorities. They then negotiate with other groups of students representing rival powers using a combination of diplomatic letters and embassies. For many students, the exercise as a whole may remind them of the mock United Nations conventions they might have experienced before. The exercise is available on request to any instructor. We have found that it generates a fast-paced and highly immersive educational experience that is frequently the high point for students in a semester.

At the end of the exercise, students should learn the following:

- The second half of the seventeenth century was a singular moment in East and Southeast Asian history in which two armed enterprises, one European, one Asian, dominated the sea lanes, forcing a range of different powers to respond.
- While these maritime powers dominated the waves, seventeenth-century East and Southeast Asia was a multipolar environment characterized by multiple political permutations. This generated a complex and sometimes chaotic international environment in which different powers interacted, opposed and allied with each other. The Qing might ally with the VOC, the VOC with Siam, and so on. The exercise is designed to simulate these multiple permutations.
- Asian markets represented the greatest commercial prize of the seventeenth century. While much scholarly work has focused on China and its seemingly insatiable demand for silver, Japan was a huge market in its own right. In particular, Japan’s sustained demand for deerskins generated fierce commercial competition.
- Both the VOC and the Zheng organization were hybrid enterprises that possessed essentially sovereign powers. They made ready use of maritime violence, which was described variously as legal privateering or illegal piracy depending on viewpoint. In this period, the distinction between legality and illegality, and between a legitimate state and an armed pirate enterprise was complex and subject constantly to change.
- The Zheng organization was a formidable competitor to the VOC and other European powers. Such organizations represents an alternative path in global history in which Asian maritime enterprises might have emerged to challenge their European equivalents.
- There was nothing inevitable about the rise of Europe. The VOC was the most powerful European overseas enterprises in the seventeenth century, but it lurched from setback to setback.

Overview of the exercise

In the early 1670s, representatives of five key powers (factions) in East and Southeast Asia have gathered in an undisclosed location to discuss how to resolve the escalating conflict across the region. The exercise is divided into three stages ideally split across three separate classes.

The factions are as follows:

Zheng maritime network
Dutch East India Company (VOC)
Ayutthaya (Siam)
Tokugawa Japan
Qing China

Note: The Dutch East India Company was referred to as the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie in Dutch. Because of this, it was commonly referred to by its acronym, VOC. The kingdom of Ayutthaya is frequently known as Siam and roughly corresponds with modern day Thailand.

These powers can be further divided into three broad groups or factions. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses.

The armed maritime powers: The Zheng and the VOC

Strengths: formidable maritime and trading powers, can blockade the coast of territorial powers and attack shipping
Weaknesses: hybrid organizations with no conventional standing, lack of legitimacy. While the Zheng claim rights to rule China, they are engaged in a struggle with the Qing who control the mainland.

The continental agrarian powers - Qing China and Tokugawa Japan

Strengths: wealthy markets that trading powers want access to, high prestige as East Asian superpowers
Weaknesses: huge armies but limited or no navies. Vulnerable to maritime blockades. The Qing have a further disadvantage in that the Zheng claim legitimacy as China’s rightful rulers

The continental trading powers - Ayutthaya (Siam)

Advantages: Flexible polity heavily invested in trade, willing to make compromises, open to trade
Weaknesses: Limited or no navy. Maritime blockades can potentially devastate the coast. Heavily reliant on long-distance trade with profits flowing directly to the court.

If students have a strong preference for joining a particular group, they may select their preferred group through a sign-up sheet. Group membership will be determined on a first-come, first-served basis. Those who do not choose to sign up will be assigned a group.

How it works

There are three stages or rounds. At the end of each round, there are a series of votes that indicate the state of the negotiations. The emphasis throughout the exercise is on historically grounded negotiations and diplomacy.

Readings for the exercise

Adam Clulow and Xing Hang, “Between the Company and Koxinga: Territorial Waters, Trade and War over Deerskins”, in Lauren Benton and Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, eds. A World at Sea: Maritime Practices in Global History, 1500-1900 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020)

Adam Clulow and Xing Hang, “Restraining Violence on the Seas: The Tokugawa, the Zheng Maritime Network and the Dutch East India Company”, in Peter H. Wilson, Marie Houllemare and Erica Charter, eds. A Global History of Early Modern Violence (Manchester University Press, 2020)

Dhiravat na Pombejera, “The Dutch-Siamese Conflict of 1663-1664: A Reassessment,” in Leonard Blussé (ed.), Around and About Formosa: Essays in Honor of Professor Ts’ao Yung-ho (Taipei: Ts’ao Yung-ho Foundation for Culture and Education, 2003), pp. 291-306.

Chapter 5, The Zheng State on Taiwan, in Xing Hang, Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia: The Zheng Family and the Shaping of the Modern World, c. 1620-1720. New York: Cambridge University Press

Chapter 6, The lure of China, in Xing Hang, Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia: The Zheng Family and the Shaping of the Modern World, c. 1620-1720. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Xing Hang, “The Shogun’s Chinese Partners: The Alliance between Tokugawa Japan and the Zheng Family in Seventeenth-Century Maritime East Asia,” Journal of Asian Studies 75.1 (2016): 111-136.

Chapter 5, Power and Petition, in Adam Clulow, The Company and the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan (Columbia University Press, 2014, reissued in paperback 2016)

Cheng Wei-chung, War, Trade and Piracy in the China Seas (1622-1683) (Leiden: Brill, 2013)

Daphon Ho, “The Burning Shore: Fujian and the Coastal. Depopulation, 1661-1683”, in Sea Rovers, Silver, and Samurai: Maritime East Asia in Global History, 1550–1700, edited by Tonio Andrade and Xing Hang, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2016