chapter  9
The rise of Chinese mercantile power in maritime Southeast Asia c.1400–1700
ByChang Pin-tsun
Pages 20

In a distinguished lecture on government, Mancur Olson pointed out a pitfall of economic rationality: it tends to overlook what is the most obvious to everyone, just like a rational stroller tends to overlook the big bills lying on the sidewalk. 1 The same pitfall sometimes may be found in historical rationality, which, by focusing entirely on the positive elements, often ignores the side-effects of some seemingly negative elements. Looking from the vantage point of Chinese economic power in Southeast Asia today, this chapter tries to search for the “big bills” in relation to its origin, which have been long ignored in the study of Chinese maritime history. One big bill comes instantly to my attention: the unintended consequences of Ming maritime policy and the trade monopoly of the Dutch United East India Company (VOC). Benefitted by historical hindsight, we are now able to credit these phenomena with their positive effects and see them as the most critical contributory elements in the foundation of Chinese mercantile dominance in maritime Southeast Asia. These effects have been largely ignored or inadequately dealt with. Suffice it to say that they were chiefly responsible for the displacement of South and West Asians by the Chinese in the competition for commercial interests in this region. The displacement process took place over a period of about three centuries, roughly from 1400 to 1700.