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Imperialism in Asia

Large areas of Asia, as well as Africa and other areas of the world, were subjected to imperial control by European nations, China, and Japan.

There are many reasons why this was able to take place so easily and to the extent it did: the Industrial Revolution had not yet spread to these regions, making the weapons their peoples possessed generally inferior to those of the Europeans; military organisation was on the whole weaker than in Europe; governments tended to be unrepresentative; the survival of ethnic and tribal loyalties at the expense of nationalist feeling and the prevalence of mass illiteracy impeded the development of cohesive societies and strong administration; and the presence of valuable raw materials and abundant cheap labour exerted a powerful attraction.

The Partitioning of Asia

  • Sri Lanka- conquered by Portugal (1505), the Netherlands (1656), and then Britain (1796). It had tea and rubber.
  • Macau - Portuguese colony, first European colony in China (1557).
  • Hong Kong - British colony from 1841 to 1997.
  • Malaya- Portuguese then British; rich in tin and rubber.
  • Singapore - Portuguese then British.
  • Burma - merged with India by the British from 1886 to 1937. In 1880, the French built a raliroad from Tonkin to Mandalay[?]: fearing a French conquest, the British went to war with Burma. The Burmese king was captured and sent to India during the war.
  • Indonesia and surrounding islands - occupied by the Dutch.
  • Indo-China - French; including Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Successive revolts were "pacified"
  • Thailand - nominally independent, but subject to British and French influence.
  • Philippines - Spanish until revolt of 1896, then acquired by the U.S. after the Spanish-American War of 1898 for $20 million.

The British in India

The British East India Company, formed in 1600, was in direct competition with French and Dutch interests until 1763, extending its control over almost the whole subcontinent in the century following the subjugation of Bengal at the 1757 Battle of Plassey[?]. After the Revolt of 1857, India came under direct British government administration. Queen Victoria was designated Empress of India in 1876.

British rule did modernize India in many respects. The spread of railroads from 1853 contributed to the expansion of business, while cotton, tea and indigo plantations drew new areas into the commercial economy. But the removal of import duties in 1883 exposed India's emerging industries to unfettered British competition, provoking fierce condemnation within the subsequent nationalist movement.

The denial of equal status to Indians was the immediate stimulus to the formation in 1885 of the Indian National Congress, initially loyal to the Empire but committed from 1905 to increased self-government and by 1930 to outright independence. The "Home charges", payments transferred from India for administrative costs, were a lasting source of nationalist grievance, though the flow declined in relative importance over the decades to independence in 1947.

Although majority Hindu and minority Muslim political leaders were able to collaborate closely in their criticism of British policy into the 1920s, British support for distinct Muslim political organisation from 1906 and insistence from the 1920s on separate electorates for religious minorities is seen by many in India as having contributed to Hindu-Muslim discord and the country's eventual partition.

Imperialism in China

The First Opium War

Economic developments in Britain explain the increasing drive to penetrate Chinese markets. During the 18th century, Britain and China established a vigorous trade with China exporting tea and Britain exporting silver from Mexico which had been acquired through its colonies in America. After the loss of the American colonies, Britain lost the supply of silver and desired to find another product to export to China. This product was opium from India. While this eliminated the balance of payments[?] problem, it resulted in enormous social costs to China and this resulted in Britain and China going to war over opium in 1830.

British imperialism in 19th century China was also fostered by the mistaken belief that China would be a market for British manufactured goods (chiefly textiles) and the equally mistaken belief that the lack of Chinese interest in manufactured goods was due to governmental restrictions on trade. In fact there is a consensus among historians of China that Chinese restrictions on trade were not onerous and that the British textiles were unable to compete with local textiles because Chinese textiles were created by surplus labor within a family and hence unlike British textiles, it was unnecessary for the labor to be paid at subsidence rates.

Sovereign areas already hospitable to informal empire largely avoided formal rule during the shift to New Imperialism, the age of formal empire that characterized the late 19th century. China, for instance, was not a backward country unable to secure the prerequisite stability and security for western-style commerce, but a highly advanced empire unwilling to admit western (often drug-pushing) commerce, which may explain the West's contentment with informal 'Spheres of Influences'. China, unlike tropical Africa, was a securable market without formal control. Following the First Opium War, British commerce, and later capital invested by other newly industrializing countries, was securable with a smaller degree of formal control than in Southeast Asia, West Africa, and the Pacific. But in many respects, China was a colony and a large-scale receptacle of Western capital investments. Western powers did intervene military there to quell domestic chaos, such as the horrific Taiping Rebellion and the anti-imperialist Boxer Rebellion. For example, General Gordon, later the imperialist 'martyr' in the Sudan, is often accredited as having saved the Manchu dynasty[?] from the Taiping insurrection.

The British found it difficult to sell their products in China (and perpetuate their drug-pushing), and so experienced (in common with other European countries) a deficit in Chinese trade until the early 19th century. The start of a large-scale trade in opium from British India to China reversed the situation, creating widespread addiction among the upper echelons of the population and threatening the country with immeasurable physical, moral, and psychological damage.

An attempt by Chinese officials in Canton (now Guangzhou) to stop the trade led to the First Opium War (1839-1842), in which the British easily defeated the Chinese and gained control of the island of Hong Kong. The Treaty of Nanjing recognised the principle of extraterritoriality, under which any British citizen charged with an offence in China would be tried by fellow Britons rather than in a Chinese court.

The Second Opium War (1856-1860), in which Britain was joined by France following the death of a missionary and the arrest of British seamen, extended Britain's holding in Hong Kong to the adjacent mainland district of Kowloon. The Treaty of Tianjin[?] gave the imperial powers even more power.

In 1894-1995, China lost a war against Japan over Korea. China had to pay huge war reparations ($150 million) and give up Taiwan (Formosa) and nearby islands to Japan. Korea was recognised as nominally independent, but came under Japanese domination. Intervention by France, Germany and Russia prevented further Japanese annexations, an episode remembered with bitterness in Japan when the same powers helped themselves to Chinese naval bases and spheres of influence in 1897-1898.

Spheres of Influence

John Hay, U.S. Secretary of the State at the time, called (September 1899) for recognition by the powers of the principle of the "Open Door", denoting freedom of commercial access and non-annexation of Chinese territory. Supported by Britain and Japan, the U.S. stand helped to control the partitioning of China. In any event, it was in the European powers' interest to have a weak but independent Chinese government. The privileges of the Europeans in China were guaranteed in the form of treaties with the Chinese government. In the event that the Chinese government totally collapsed, each power risked losing the privileges that it already had negotiated. At the same time, it was not in the interest of the Europeans to have an overly strong Chinese government, with the ability to repudiate its treaties.

The erosion of Chinese sovereignty contributed to a spectacular anti-foreign outbreak in June 1900, when the "Boxers" (properly the society of the "righteous and harmonious fists" attacked European legations in Beijing, provoking a rare display of unity among the powers, whose troops landed at Tianjin and marched on the capital: German forces were particularly severe in exacting revenge for the killing of their Ambassador, while Russia tightened her hold on Manchuria in the north-east until her crushing defeat by Japan in their war of 1904-1905.

Although extraterritorial jurisdiction was abandoned in 1943, foreign rule in China only finally ended with the re-incorporation of Hong Kong and the small Portuguese territory of Macau into the People's Republic in 1997 and 1999 respectively.

'China as an imperialist power'

Although most discussions of imperialism present China as a victim of imperialism, one recent trend among historians of China is to point out that this obscures a more complicated picture. While China was under attack in the 19th century by the Europeans, it simulataneously was expanding its western borders to include areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet that had historically rarely been under Chinese control. Indeed the name Xinjiang itself is Chinese for new border.

The ability of China to project power into Central Asia came about because of two changes, one social and one technological. The social change was that under the Qing dynasty China came under the control of the Manchus who organized the Chinese military forces around cavalry which was more suited for power projection than traditional Chinese infantry. The technological change was advances in cannon and artillery which negated the military advantage that the people of the steppe had with their cavalry.

Chinese actions in Central Asia was aided by the fact that most of the local rulers there (particularly in Tibet) considered the relatively light control from the Chinese to be preferably to more direct control from Russia or the British.

Central and Western Asia - The Great Game

Britain, China and Russia were rivals in this theatre. In the late 19th century, Russia took control of large areas of Central Asia, leading to a brief crisis with Britain over Afghanistan in 1885. In Persia (now Iran), both nations set up banks to extend their economic influence. Britain went so far as to invade Tibet, a land under nominal Chinese suzerainty, in 1904, withdrawing when it emerged that Russian influence was insignificant and after a military defeat by one of China's modernized New Armies.

By an agreement of 1907 (see Entente), Russia gave up claims to Afghanistan. Chinese suzerainty over Tibet also was recognized by both Russia and Britain, since nominal control by a weak China was preferable to control by either power. Persia was divided into Russian and British spheres of influence and an intervening neutral (free or common) zone. Britain permitted subsequent Russian action (1911) against Persia's nationalist government. After the Russian Revolution Russia gave up her claim to a sphere of influence, though Soviet involvement persisted alongside Britain's until the 1940s.

In the Middle East, A German company built a raliroad from Constantinople to Baghdad and the the Persian Gulf. Germany wanted to gain economic control of the region and then move on to Iran and India. This was met with bitter resistance by Britain, Russia, and France and the region was divided among themselves.

World War I: Changes in Imperialism

When the Central Powers, which included Germany and Turkey were defeated, major changes were felt around the world. Germany lost all of its colonies, while Turkey gave up her Arab provinces: Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia (now Iraq) came under French and British control as League of Nations Mandates[?]. The discovery of oil in Iran in the 1900s and in the Arab lands between the wars provided a new focus for activity on the part of Britain, France, and the U.S.

Japan in Asia in the era of New Imperialism

In the late 19th century, Japan started its imperialistic conquest that would one day lead to World War II. Initially, Japan was lucky to escape the fate of other Asian nations, having been forced by Commodore Perry in 1853 to open its doors up to trade. Similar arrangements followed with all of the European powers.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 led to administrative modernisation and subsequent rapid economic development. Japan had little natural resources of her own and needed both overseas markets and sources of raw materials, fuelling the drive for imperial conquest which began with her defeat of China in 1895.

In 1899 Japan won the powers' abandonment of extraterritoriality, and an alliance with Britain established her in 1902 as an international power. Her spectacular defeat of Russia in 1905 gave her the southern portion of the island of Sakhalin, the former Russian lease of the Liaotung Peninsula[?] with Port Arthur (now Lushun), and extensive rights in Manchuria. In 1910, Korea was annexed to the Japanese empire.

Japan was now one of the most powerful forces in the Far East, and in 1914 she entered World War I on the side of Britain, seizing German-occupied Kiaochow[?] and subsequently demanding Chinese acceptance of Japanese political influence and territorial acquisitions (Twenty-one Demands, 1915). Mass protests in Peking in 1919 coupled with Allied (and particularly U.S.) opinion led to Japan's abandonment of most of the demands and Kiaochow's return (1922) to China.

Japan's rebuff was perceived in Tokyo as only temporary, and in 1931 Japanese army units based in Manchuria seized control of the province: full-scale war with China followed in 1937, drawing Japan toward the bid for Pacific hegemony which would lead to defeat and the loss of her overseas territories in World War II.

USA in Asia

The USA gained control of the Philippines from the Spanish in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Philippine resistance led to the Philippine-American War from 1899-1902 and the Moro Rebellion[?] (1902-1913). The Americans granted the Philippines their independence in 1946.

The U.S.A. annexed Hawaii in 1893 and gained control over several other island in the Pacific during World War II.

See also: Imperialism, New Imperialism, Colonialism



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