Imperialism in Asia

Imperialism in Asia
This article is part of
the New Imperialism
Origins of New Imperialism
Imperialism in Asia
The Scramble for Africa
Theories of New Imperialism

Imperialism in Asia traces its roots back to the late 15th century with a series of voyages that sought a sea passage to India in the hope of establishing direct trade between Europe and Asia in spices. Before 1500 European economies were largely self-sufficient, only supplemented by minor trade with Asia and Africa. Within the next century, however, European and Asian economies were slowly becoming integrated through the rise of new global trade routes; and the early thrust of European political power, commerce, and culture in Asia gave rise to a growing trade in lucrative commodities—a key development in the rise of today's modern world free market economy

In the 16th century, the Portuguese broke the monopoly of the Arabs and Italians of trade between Asia and Europe by the discovery of the sea route to India around the Cape of Good Hope.[1] However, with the rise of the rival Dutch East India Company, Portuguese influence in Asia was gradually eclipsed. Dutch forces first established independent bases in the East (most significantly Batavia, the heavily fortified headquarters of the Dutch East India Company) and then between 1640 and 1660 wrestled Malacca, Ceylon, some southern Indian ports, and the lucrative Japan trade from the Portuguese. Later, the English and the French established settlements in India and established a trade with China and their own acquisitions would gradually surpass those of the Dutch. Following the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, the British eliminated French influence in India and established the British East India Company as the most important political force on the Indian Subcontinent.

Before the Industrial Revolution in the mid-to-late 19th century, demand for oriental goods remained the driving force behind European imperialism, and (with the important exception of British East India Company rule in India) the European stake in Asia remained confined largely to trading stations and strategic outposts necessary to protect trade. Industrialisation, however, dramatically increased European demand for Asian raw materials; and the severe Long Depression of the 1870s provoked a scramble for new markets for European industrial products and financial services in Africa, the Americas, Eastern Europe, and especially in Asia. This scramble coincided with a new era in global colonial expansion known as "the New Imperialism," which saw a shift in focus from trade and indirect rule to formal colonial control of vast overseas territories ruled as political extensions of their mother countries. Between the 1870s and the beginning of World War I in 1914, the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands — the established colonial powers in Asia — added to their empires vast expanses of territory in the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, and South East Asia. In the same period, the Empire of Japan, following the Meiji Restoration; the German Empire, following the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871; Tsarist Russia; and the United States, following the Spanish-American War in 1898, quickly emerged as new imperial powers in East Asia and in the Pacific Ocean area.

In Asia, World War I and World War II were played out as struggles among several key imperial powers—conflicts involving the European powers along with Russia and the rising American and Japanese powers. None of the colonial powers, however, possessed the resources to withstand the strains of both world wars and maintain their direct rule in Asia. Although nationalist movements throughout the colonial world led to the political independence of nearly all of the Asia's remaining colonies, decolonisation was intercepted by the Cold War; and South East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and East Asia remained embedded in a world economic, financial, and military system in which the great powers compete to extend their influence. However, the rapid post-war economic development of the East Asian Tigers and the People's Republic of China, along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, have loosened European and North American influence in Asia, generating speculation today about the possible re-emergence of China and Japan as regional powers.


Early European exploration of Asia

European exploration of Asia started in ancient Roman times. Knowledge of lands as distant as China were held by the Romans. Trade with India through the Roman Egyptian Red Sea ports was significant in the first centuries of the Common Era.

Medieval European exploration of Asia

Illustration of Marco Polo's arrival in a Chinese city

In the 13th and 14th centuries, a number of Europeans, many of them Christian missionaries, had sought to penetrate China. The most famous of these travelers was Marco Polo. But these journeys had little permanent effect on East-West trade because of a series of political developments in Asia in the last decades of the 14th century, which put an end to further European exploration of Asia. The Yuan dynasty in China, which had been receptive to European missionaries and merchants, was overthrown, and the new Ming rulers were found to be inward oriented and unreceptive to foreign religious proselytism. Meanwhile, The Turks consolidated control over the eastern Mediterranean, closing off key overland trade routes. Thus, until the 15th century, only minor trade and cultural exchanges between Europe and Asia continued at certain terminals controlled by Muslim traders.

Oceanic voyages to Asia

Western European rulers determined to find new trade routes of their own. The Portuguese spearheaded the drive to find oceanic routes that would provide cheaper and easier access to South and East Asian goods. This chartering of oceanic routes between East and West began with the unprecedented voyages of Portuguese and Spanish sea captains. Their voyages were influenced by medieval European adventurers, who had journeyed overland to the Far East and contributed to geographical knowledge of parts of Asia upon their return.

In 1488, Bartholomeu Dias rounded the southern tip of Africa under the sponsorship of Portugal's John II, from which point he noticed that the coast swung northeast. Although his crew forced him to turn back, he was pleased with the prospect of soon finding a sea route to India and named the tip as the Cape of Good Hope. Later, starting in 1497, Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama made the first open voyage from Europe to India. In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese navigator in the service of Spain, found a sea route into the Pacific Ocean.

Portuguese and Spanish trade and colonization in Asia

For further detail see Portuguese Empire.

Portuguese monopoly over trade in the Indian Ocean

Early in the 16th century Afonso de Albuquerque (left) emerged as the Portuguese colonial viceroy most instrumental in consolidating Portugal's holdings in Africa and in Asia. He understood that Portugal could wrest commercial supremacy from the Arabs only by force, and therefore devised a plan to establish forts at strategic sites which would dominate the trade routes and also protect Portuguese interests on land. In 1510, he seized Goa in India, which enabled him to gradually consolidate control of most of the commercial traffic between Europe and Asia, largely through trade; Europeans started to carry on trade from forts, acting as foreign merchants rather than as settlers. In contrast, early European expansion in the "West Indies", (later known to Europeans as a separate continent from Asia that they would call the "Americas") following the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus, involved heavy settlement in colonies that were treated as political extensions of the mother countries.

Lured by the potential of high profits from another expedition, the Portuguese established a permanent base south of the Indian trade port of Calicut in the early 15th century. In 1510, the Portuguese seized Goa on the coast of India, which Portugal held until 1961. The Portuguese soon acquired a monopoly over trade in the Indian Ocean.

Portuguese viceroy Afonso de Albuquerque (1509–1515) resolved to consolidate Portuguese holdings in Africa and Asia, and secure control of trade with the East Indies and China. His first objective was Malacca, which controlled the narrow strait through which most Far Eastern trade moved. Captured in 1511, Malacca became the springboard for further eastward penetration; several years later the first trading posts were established in the Moluccas, or "Spice Islands," which was the source for some of the world's most hotly demanded spices. By 1516, the first Portuguese ships had reached Canton on the southern coasts of China.

Portuguese expeditions 1415–1542: arrival places and dates; Portuguese spice trade routes in the Indian Ocean (blue); territories of the Portuguese empire under King John III rule (green)

By 1557, the Portuguese gained a permanent base in China at Macau, which they held until 1999. The Portuguese, based at Goa and Malacca, had now established a lucrative maritime empire in the Indian Ocean meant to monopolise the spice trade. The Portuguese also began a channel of trade with the Japanese, becoming the first recorded Westerners to have visited Japan. This contact introduced Christianity and fire-arms into Japan.

The energies of Spain, the other major colonial power of the 16th century, were largely concentrated on the Americas, not South and East Asia. But the Spanish did establish a footing in the Far East in the Philippines. After 1565, cargoes of Chinese goods were transported from the Philippines to Mexico and from there to Spain. By this long route, Spain reaped some of the profits of Far Eastern commerce. Spanish officials converted the island to Christianity and established some settlements, permanently establishing the Philippines as the area of East Asia most oriented toward the West in terms of culture and commerce.

Decline of Portugal's Asian empire since the 17th century

A silver Indo-Portuguese coin featuring a standing figure facing right with flag struck for and minted in Goa during the reign of John IV.

The lucrative trade was vastly expanded when the Portuguese began to export slaves from Africa in 1541; however, over time, the rise of the slave trade left Portugal over-extended, and vulnerable to competition from other Western European powers. Envious of Portugal's control of trade routes, other Western European nations — mainly the Netherlands, France, and England — began to send in rival expeditions to Asia. In 1642, the Dutch drove the Portuguese out of the Gold Coast in Africa, the source of the bulk of Portuguese slave labourers, leaving this rich slaving area to other Europeans, especially the Dutch and the English.

Rival European powers began to make inroads in Asia as the Portuguese and Spanish trade in the Indian Ocean declined primarily because they had become hugely over-stretched financially due to the limitations on their investment capacity and contemporary naval technology. Both of these factors worked in tandem, making control over Indian Ocean trade extremely expensive.

The existing Portuguese interests in Asia proved sufficient to finance further colonial expansion and entrenchment in areas regarded as of greater strategic importance in Africa and Brazil. Portuguese maritime supremacy was lost to the Dutch in the 17th century, and with this came serious challenges for the Portuguese. However, they still clung to Macau, and settled a new colony on the island of Timor. It was as recent as the 1960s and 1970s that the Portuguese began to relinquish their colonies in Asia. Goa was invaded by India in 1961 and became an Indian state in 1987; East Timor was abandoned in 1975 and was then invaded by Indonesia. It became an independent nation in 2002; and Macau was handed over to the Chinese as per a treaty in 1999.

Dutch trade and colonization in Asia

Rise of Dutch control over Asian trade in the 17th century

Dutch settlement in the East Indies. Batavia, Java (now Jakarta), c. 1665.

Portuguese decline in Asia was accelerated by the attacks on their commercial empire by the Dutch and the English, which began a global struggle over empire in Asia that lasted until the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763. The Netherlands revolt against Spanish rule facilitated Dutch encroachment of the Portuguese monopoly over South and East Asian trade. The Dutch looked on Spain's trade and colonies as potential spoils in war. When the two crowns of the Iberian peninsula were joined in 1581, the Dutch felt free to attack Portuguese territories in Asia.

By the 1590s, a number of Dutch companies were formed to finance trading expeditions in Asia. Because competition lowered their profits, and because of the doctrines of mercantilism, in 1602 the companies united into a cartel and formed the Dutch East India Company, and received from the government the right to trade and colonise territory in the area stretching from the Cape of Good Hope eastward to the Strait of Magellan.

In 1605, armed Dutch merchants captured the Portuguese fort at Amboyna in the Moluccas, which was developed into the first secure base of the company. Over time, the Dutch gradually consolidated control over the great trading ports of the East Indies. Control over the East Indies trading ports allowed the company to monopolise the world spice trade for decades. Their monopoly over the spice trade became complete after they drove the Portuguese from Malacca in 1641 and Ceylon in 1658.

Dutch East India Company colonies or outposts were later established in Atjeh (Aceh), 1667; Macassar, 1669; and Bantam, 1682. The company established its headquarters at Batavia (today Jakarta) on the island of Java. Outside the East Indies, the Dutch East India Company colonies or outposts were also established in Persia (now Iran), Bengal (now Bangladesh and part of India), Mauritius (1638-1658/1664-1710), Siam (now Thailand), Guangzhou (Canton, China), Taiwan (1624–1662), and southern India (1616–1795). In 1662, Zheng Chenggong (also known as Koxinga) expelled the Dutch from Taiwan. (see History of Taiwan) Further, the Dutch East India Company trade post on Dejima (1641–1857), an artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki, was for a long time the only place where Europeans could trade with Japan.

In 1652, Jan van Riebeeck established an outpost at the Cape of Good Hope (the southwestern tip of Africa, currently in South Africa) to restock company ships on their journey to East Asia. This post later became a fully-fledged colony, the Cape Colony (1652–1806). As Cape Colony attracted increasing Dutch and European settlement, the Dutch founded the city of Kaapstad (Cape Town).

By 1669, the Dutch East India Company was the richest private company in history, with a huge fleet of merchant ships and warships, tens of thousands of employees, a private army consisting of thousands of soldiers, and a reputation on the part of its stockholders for high dividend payments.

Dutch New Imperialism in Asia

The Dutch Governor-General, highest authority in the colony and the Sultan of Jogjakarta.

The company was in almost constant conflict with the English; relations were particularly tense following the Amboyna Massacre in 1623. During the 18th century, Dutch East India Company possessions were increasingly focused on the East Indies. After the fourth war between the United Provinces and England (1780–1784), the company suffered increasing financial difficulties. In 1799, the company was dissolved, commencing official colonisation of the East Indies. During the era of New Imperialism the territorial claims of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) expanded into a fully fledged colony named the Dutch East Indies. Partly driven by re-newed colonial aspirations of fellow European nation states the Dutch strived to establish unchallenged control of the archipelago now known as Indonesia.

Six years into formal colonisation of the East Indies, in Europe the Dutch Republic was occupied by the French forces of Napoleon. The Dutch government went into exile in England and formally ceded its colonial possessions to Great Britain. The pro-French Governor General Daendels of the Dutch East Indies fought the British in the Anglo-Dutch Java War before surrendering the colony. British Governor Raffles, who the later founded the city of Singapore, ruled the colony the following 10 years of the British interregnum (1806–1816).

After the defeat of Napoleon and the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 colonial government of the East Indies was ceded back to the Dutch in 1817. The loss of South Africa and the continued scramble for Africa stimulated the Dutch to secure unchallenged dominion over its colony in the East Indies. The Dutch started to consolidate its power base through extensive military campaigns and elaborate diplomatic alliances with indigenous rulers ensuring the Dutch tricolor was firmly planted in all corners of the Archipelago. These military campaigns included: the Padri War (1821–1837), the Java War (1825–1830) and the Aceh War (1873–1904). This raised the need for a considerable military build up of the colonial army (KNIL). From all over Europe soldiers were recruited to join the KNIL.[2]

The Dutch concentrated their colonial enterprise in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) throughout the 19th century. The Dutch lost control over the East Indies to the Japanese during much of World War II.[3] Following the war, the Dutch fought Indonesian independence forces after Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945. In 1949 most of what was known as the Dutch East Indies was ceded to the independent Republic of Indonesia. In 1962 also Dutch New Guinea was annexed by Indonesia de facto ending Dutch imperialism in Asia.

British in India

Portuguese, French, and British competition in India (1600–1763)

Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive.

The English sought to stake out claims in India at the expense of the Portuguese dating back to the Elizabethan era. In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I incorporated the English East India Company (later the British East India Company), granting it a monopoly of trade from the Cape of Good Hope eastward to the Strait of Magellan. In 1639 it acquired Madras on the east coast of India, where it quickly surpassed Portuguese Goa as the principal European trading centre on the Indian Subcontinent.

Through bribes, diplomacy, and manipulation of weak native rulers, the company prospered in India, where it became the most powerful political force, and outrivaled its Portuguese, and French competitors. For more than one hundred years, English and French trading companies had fought one another for supremacy, and by the middle of the 18th century competition between the British and the French had heated up. French defeat by the British under the command of Robert Clive during the Seven Years' War (1756–1763) marked the end of the French stake in India.

Collapse of Mughal India

The British East India Company, although still in direct competition with French and Dutch interests until 1763, was able to extend its control over almost the whole of India in the century following the subjugation of Bengal at the 1757 Battle of Plassey. The British East India Company made great advances at the expense of a Mughal dynasty, seething with corruption, oppression, and revolt, that was crumbling under the despotic rule of Aurangzeb (1658–1707).

The reign of Shah Jahan (1628–1658) had marked the height of Mughal power. However, the reign of Aurangzeb, a ruthless and fanatical man who intended to rid India of all views alien to the Islamic faith, was disastrous. By 1690, when Mughal territorial expansion reached its greatest extent, Aurangzeb's Empire encompassed the entire Indian Subcontinent. But this period of power was followed by one of decline. Fifty years after the death of Aurangzeb, the great Mughal empire had crumbled. Meanwhile, marauding warlords, nobles, and others bent on gaining power left the Subcontinent increasingly anarchic. Although the Mughals kept the imperial title until 1858, the central government had collapsed, creating a power vacuum.

From Company to Crown

The British Empire in 1920.

Aside from defeating the French during the Seven Years' War, Robert Clive, the leader of the Company in India, defeated a key Indian ruler of Bengal at the decisive Battle of Plassey (1757), a victory that ushered in the beginning of a new period in Indian history, that of informal British rule. While still nominally the sovereign, the Mughal Indian emperor became more and more of a puppet ruler, and anarchy spread until the company stepped into the role of policeman of India. The transition to formal imperialism, characterised by Queen Victoria being crowned "Empress of India" in the 1870s was a gradual process. The first step toward cementing formal British control extended back to the late 18th century. The British Parliament, disturbed by the idea that a great business concern, interested primarily in profit, was controlling the destinies of millions of people, passed acts in 1773 and 1784 that gave itself the power to control company policies and to appoint the highest company official in India, the Governor-General. (This system of dual control lasted until 1858.) By 1818 the East India Company was master of all of India. Some local rulers were forced to accept its overlordship; others were deprived of their territories. Some portions of India were administered by the British directly; in others native dynasties were retained under British supervision.

Until 1858, however, much of India was still officially the dominion of the Mughal emperor. Anger among some social groups, however, was seething under the governor-generalship of James Dalhousie (1847–1856), who annexed the Punjab (1849) after victory in the Second Sikh War, annexed seven princely states on the basis of lapse, annexed the key state of Oudh on the basis of misgovernment, and upset cultural sensibilities by banning Hindu practices such as Sati. The 1857 Sepoy Rebellion, or Indian Mutiny, an uprising initiated by Indian troops, called sepoys, who formed the bulk of the Company's armed forces, was the key turning point. Rumour had spread among them that their bullet cartridges were lubricated with pig and cow fat. The cartridges had to be bit open, so this upset the Hindu and Muslim soldiers. The Hindu religion held cows sacred, and for Muslims pork was considered Haraam. In one camp, 85 out of 90 sepoys would not accept the cartridges from their garrison officer. The British harshly punished those who would not by jailing them. The Indian people were outraged, and on May 10, 1857, sepoys marched to Delhi, and, with the help of soldiers stationed there, captured it. Fortunately for the British, many areas remained loyal and quiescent, allowing the revolt to be crushed after fierce fighting. One important consequence of the revolt was the final collapse of the Mughal dynasty. The mutiny also ended the system of dual control under which the British government and the British East India Company shared authority. The government relieved the company of its political responsibilities, and in 1858, after 258 years of existence, the company relinquished its role. Trained civil servants were recruited from graduates of British universities, and these men set out to rule India. Lord Canning (created earl in 1859), appointed Governor-General of India in 1856, became known as "Clemency Canning" as a term of derision for his efforts to restrain revenge against the Indians during the Indian Mutiny. When the Government of India was transferred from the Company to the Crown, Canning became the first viceroy of India.

Rise of Indian nationalism

The denial of equal status to Indians was the immediate stimulus for 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 a distinct Muslim political organisation, the Muslim League 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.

France in Indochina

France, which had lost its empire to the British by the end of the 18th century, had little geographical or commercial basis for expansion in Southeast Asia. After the 1850s, French imperialism was initially impelled by a nationalistic need to rival the United Kingdom and was supported intellectually by the notion that French culture was superior to that of the people of Annam, and its mission civilisatrice— or its "civilizing mission" of the Annamese through their assimilation to French culture and the Catholic religion. The false pretext for French expansionism in Indochina was the protection of French religious missions in the area, coupled with a desire to find a southern route to China through Tonkin, the European name for the northern region of northern Vietnam.

French religious and commercial interests were established in Indochina as early as the 17th century, but no concerted effort at stabilizing the French position was possible in the face of British strength in the Indian Ocean and French defeat in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. A mid-19th century religious revival under the Second Empire provided the atmosphere within which interest in Indochina grew. Anti-Christian persecutions in the Far East provided the pretext for the bombardment of Tourane (Da Nang) in 1847, and invasion and occupation of Da Nang in 1857 and Saigon in 1858. Under Napoleon III, France decided that French trade with China would be surpassed by the British, and accordingly the French joined the British against China in the Second Opium War from 1857 to 1860, and occupied parts of Vietnam as its gateway to China.

By the Treaty of Saigon in 1862, on June 5th, the Vietnamese emperor ceded France three provinces of southern Vietnam to form the French colony of Cochinchina; France also secured trade and religious privileges in the rest of Vietnam and a protectorate over Vietnam's foreign relations. Gradually French power spread through exploration, the establishment of protectorates, and outright annexations. Their seizure of Hanoi in 1882 led directly to war with China (1883–1885), and the French victory confirmed French supremacy in the region. France governed Cochinchina as a direct colony, and central and northern Vietnam under the protectorates of Annam and Tonkin, and Cambodia as protectorates in one degree or another. Laos too was soon brought under French "protection."

By the beginning of the 20th century, France had created an empire in Indochina nearly 50 percent larger than the mother country. A Governor-General in Hanoi ruled Cochinchina directly and the other regions through a system of residents. Theoretically, the French maintained the precolonial rulers and administrative structures in Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchina, Cambodia, and Laos, but in fact the governor-generalship was a centralised fiscal and administrative regime ruling the entire region. Although the surviving native institutions were preserved in order to make French rule more acceptable, they were almost completely deprived of any independence of action. The ethnocentric French colonial administrators sought to assimilate the upper classes into France's "superior culture." While the French improved public services and provided commercial stability, the native standard of living declined and precolonial social structures eroded. Indochina, which had a population of over eighteen million in 1914, was important to France for its tin, pepper, coal, cotton, and rice. It is still a matter of debate, however, whether the colony was commercially profitable.

Russia and "The Great Game"

Tsarist Russia is not often regarded as a colonial power such as the United Kingdom or France because of the manner of Russian expansions: unlike the United Kingdom, which expanded overseas, the Russian empire grew from the centre outward by a process of accretion, like the United States. In the 19th century, Russian expansion took the form of a struggle of an effectively landlocked country for access to a warm water port.

While the British were consolidating their hold on India, Russian expansion had moved steadily eastward to the Pacific, then toward the Middle East, and finally to the frontiers of Persia and Afghanistan (both territories adjacent to British holdings in India). In response, the defense of India's land frontiers and the control of all sea approaches to the Subcontinent via the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf became preoccupations of British foreign policy in the 19th century.

Anglo-Russian rivalry in the Middle East and Central Asia led to a brief confrontation over Afghanistan in the 1870s. In Persia (now Iran), both nations set up banks to extend their economic influence. The United Kingdom went so far as to invade Tibet, a land subordinate to the Chinese empire, in 1904, but withdrew when it became clear that Russian influence was insignificant and when Chinese resistance proved tougher than expected.

In 1907, the United Kingdom and Russia signed an agreement which — on the surface —ended their rivalry in Central Asia. (see Anglo-Russian Entente) As part of the entente, Russia agreed to deal with the sovereign of Afghanistan only through British intermediaries. In turn, the United Kingdom would not annex or occupy Afghanistan. Chinese suzerainty over Tibet also was recognised by both Russia and the United Kingdom, 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" zone. The United Kingdom and Russia chose to reach these uneasy compromises because of growing concern on the part of both powers over German expansion in strategic areas of China and Africa.

Following the entente, Russia increasingly intervened in Persian domestic politics and suppressed nationalist movements that threatened both St. Petersburg and London. After the Russian Revolution, Russia gave up its claim to a sphere of influence, though Soviet involvement persisted alongside the United Kingdom's until the 1940s.

In the Middle East, a German company built a railroad from Constantinople to Baghdad and the Persian Gulf. Germany wanted to gain economic influence in the region and then, perhaps, move on to Iran and India. This was met with bitter resistance by the United Kingdom, Russia, and France who divided the region among themselves.

Imperialism in China

Qing territorial expansion

By the late 19th century, in response to competition with other states, the Qing government of China attempted to exert direct control of its frontier areas by conquest or, if already under military control, conversion into provinces.

The Qing had also expanded into Taiwan near the beginning of its dynasty, but did not convert it into a province until 1885, after Japanese interest and French invasion had challenged Qing control. Some Western studies of the Qing dynasty have used the concept of colonialism as a framework to describe the expansion of the Qing into Taiwan.[4] The use of the term colonialism or imperialism to describe this expansion is controversial, as it contests the claims of current governments to rule Taiwan.

After British troops invaded Tibet in the waning days of the Qing Dynasty, the Qing responded by sending Zhao Erfeng to further integrate Tibet into China. He succeeded in abolishing the powers of the Tibetan local leaders in Kham and appointing Chinese magistrates in their places by 1909–10. Qing forces were also sent to Ü-Tsang in 1910 to establish a direct control over Tibet proper, though a province was never established in this area.

Process of expansion

The ability of Qing 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, from 1642, China came under the control of the Manchus who organised their military forces around cavalry which was more suited for power projection than traditional Chinese infantry. The technological change was advances in the cannon and artillery which negated the military advantage that the people of the Steppe had with their cavalry (although cannons and firearms were used in China centuries beforehand to combat similar threats, see Technology of Song Dynasty). Zunghar Khanate (Зүүн гарын хаант улс) was the last great independent nomadic power on the steppe in Central Asia. The Dzungars were deliberately exterminated in a brutal campaign of ethnic genocide. It has been estimated that more than a million people were slaughtered, and it took generations for it to recover.[5] The Manchu ruling family (Aisin Gioro) was a supporter of Tibetan Buddhism and so many of the ruling groups were linked by religion. China most of the time had little ambitions to conquer or establish colonies.[citation needed] There were exceptions to this, such as the ancient Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD) establishing control over northern Vietnam, northern Korea, and the Tarim Basin of Central Asia. The short-lived Sui Dynasty (581–618 AD) had high imperial aims, reinvading Annam (northern Vietnam) and attacking Champa (southern Vietnam), while they also attempted to conquer Korea, which failed (see Goguryeo-Sui Wars). The later Tang Dynasty (618–907) aided the Korean Silla Kingdom in defeating their two Korean rivals, yet became shortchanged when they discovered Silla was not about to allow the Tang to claim much of Goguryeo's territory (as it had been under the Chinese Han Dynasty's control a few centuries before, the Han having wrested it from native kingdoms at that time). The Tang Dynasty established control over the Tarim Basin region as well, fighting wars with the new Tibetan Empire and stripping them of their colonies in Central Asia (which was abandoned after the An Lushan Rebellion). The Song Dynasty (960–1279), in securing maritime trade routes that ran from South East Asia into the Indian Ocean, had established fortified trade bases in the Philippines. The Mongol-lead Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) made attempts to invade Japan after securing the Korean peninsula through the vassaldom of the Korean Goryeo dynasty, yet both of these military ventures failed (see Mongol Invasions of Japan). Yet even when the Chinese had established their first standing navy in the 12th century (under the Southern Song), and when they had the world's strongest and biggest naval fleet during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), their aim was not colonisation, but tribute gathering. Rather, Chinese immigrated overseas to areas outside the control of their government. For instance, numerous southern Chinese emigrants settled in areas of Southeast Asia outside Chinese political control; to this day their descendants remain an economic elite, especially in Malaysia and Singapore, and to a fair extent, also in Indonesia and the Philippines.

European penetration of China

A shocked mandarin in Manchu robe in the back, with Queen Victoria (UK), William II (Germany), Nicholas II (Russia), Marianne (France), and a samurai (Japan) cutting up a pie with Chine ("China" in French) written on it.

The 16th century brought many Jesuit missionaries to China, such as Matteo Ricci, who established missions where Western science was introduced, and where Europeans gathered knowledge of Chinese society, history, culture, and science. During the 18th century, merchants from Western Europe came to China in increasing numbers. However, merchants were confined to Guangzhou and the Portuguese colony of Macau, as they had been since the 16th century. European traders were increasingly irritated by what they saw as the relatively high customs duties they had to pay and by the attempts to curb the growing import trade in opium. By 1800, its importation was forbidden by the imperial government. However, the opium trade continued to boom.

Early in the 19th century, serious internal weaknesses developed in the Qing dynasty that left China vulnerable to Western, Japanese, and Russian imperialism. In 1839, China found itself fighting the First Opium War with Britain. China was defeated, and in 1842, agreed to the provisions of the Treaty of Nanjing. Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain, and certain ports, including Shanghai and Guangzhou, were opened to British trade and residence. In 1856, the Second Opium War broke out. The Chinese were again defeated, and now forced to the terms of the 1858 Treaty of Tientsin. The treaty opened new ports to trade and allowed foreigners to travel in the interior. Christians gained the right to propagate their religion—another means of Western penetration. The United States and Russia later obtained the same prerogatives in separate treaties.

Toward the end of the 19th century, China appeared on the way to territorial dismemberment and economic vassalage—the fate of India's rulers that played out much earlier. Several provisions of these treaties caused long-standing bitterness and humiliation among the Chinese: extraterritoriality (meaning that in a dispute with a Chinese person, a Westerner had the right to be tried in a court under the laws of his own country), customs regulation, and the right to station foreign warships in Chinese waters.

The rise of Japan since the Meiji Restoration as an imperial power led to further subjugation of China. In a dispute over China's longstanding claim of suzerainty in Korea, war broke out between China and Japan, resulting in humiliating defeat for the Chinese. By the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895), China was forced to recognize effective Japanese rule of Korea and Taiwan was ceded to Japan until its recovery in 1945 at the end of the WWII by the Republic of China.

China's defeat at the hands of Japan was another trigger for future aggressive actions by Western powers. In 1897, Germany demanded and was given a set of exclusive mining and railroad rights in Shandong province. Russia obtained access to Dairen and Port Arthur and the right to build a railroad across Manchuria, thereby achieving complete domination over a large portion of northwestern China. The United Kingdom and France also received a number of concessions. At this time, much of China was divided up into "spheres of influence": Germany dominated Jiaozhou (Kiaochow) Bay, Shandong, and the Huang He (Hwang-Ho) valley; Russia dominated the Liaodong Peninsula and Manchuria; the United Kingdom dominated Weihaiwei and the Yangtze Valley; and France dominated the Guangzhou Bay and several other southern provinces.

China continued to be divided up into these spheres until the United States, which had no sphere of influence, grew alarmed at the possibility of its businessmen being excluded from Chinese markets. In 1899, Secretary of State John Hay asked the major powers to agree to a policy of equal trading privileges. In 1900, several powers agreed to the U.S.-backed scheme, giving rise to the "Open Door" policy, denoting freedom of commercial access and non-annexation of Chinese territory. 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 Qing government. In the event that the Qing government totally collapsed, each power risked losing the privileges that it already had negotiated.

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. British and French forces looted, plundered and burned the Old Summer Palace to the ground for the second time (the first time being in 1860, following the Second Opium War), as a form of threat to force the Qing empire to give in to their demands. German forces were particularly severe in exacting revenge for the killing of their ambassador, while Russia tightened its hold on Manchuria in the northeast until its crushing defeat by Japan in the war of 1904–1905.

Although extraterritorial jurisdiction was abandoned by the United Kingdom and the United States in 1943, foreign political control of parts of China only finally ended with the incorporation of Hong Kong and the small Portuguese territory of Macau into the People's Republic of China in 1997 and 1999 respectively.

U.S. Imperialism in the Pacific and Asia

1899 photo of Filipino troops killed by Americans in the Philippine-American War.

As the United States emerged as a new imperial power in the Pacific and Asia, one of the two oldest Western imperialist powers in the regions, Spain, was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain control of territories it had held in the regions since the 16th century. In 1896, a widespread revolt against Spanish rule broke out in the Philippines. Meanwhile, the recent string of U.S. territorial gains in the Pacific posed an even greater threat to Spain's remaining colonial holdings.

In 1867, the Midway Islands were occupied by the U.S. and Alaska was purchased from Russia. The next advance was in the Hawaiian Islands, where Europeans had earlier set up a lucrative plantation economy exporting sugar. In the 19th century U.S. capital poured into the islands' sugar industry; and Hawaii came increasingly under the effective control of U.S. corporations. The U.S. consolidated its influence in Hawaii in 1893, when U.S. Marines engineered a revolt that deposed the Hawaiian queen and set up a new U.S.-backed regime. Five years later, the U.S. dissolved the republic and annexed the islands.

As the U.S. continued to expand its economic and military power in the Pacific, it declared war against Spain in 1898. During the Spanish-American War, U.S. Admiral Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet at Manila and U.S. troops landed in the Philippines. Spain later agreed by treaty to cede the Philippines in Asia and Guam in the Pacific. In the Caribbean, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the U.S. The war also marked the end of Spanish rule in Cuba, which was to be granted nominal independence but remained heavily influenced by the U.S. government and U.S. business interests. One year following its treaty with Spain, the U.S. occupied the small Pacific outpost of Wake Island.

The Filipinos, who assisted U.S. troops in fighting the Spanish, wished to establish an independent state and, on June 12, 1898, declared independence from Spain. In 1899, fighting between the Filipino nationalists and the U.S. broke out; it took the U.S. almost fifteen years to fully subdue the insurgency. The U.S. sent 70,000 troops and suffered thousands of casualties. The Filipinos, however, suffered considerably higher casualties, through fighting, extrajudicial executions and disease.

U.S. attacks into the countryside often included scorched earth campaigns where entire villages were burned and destroyed, tortured, and concentrated into camps known as "protected zones." Many of these civilian casualties resulted from disease and famine. Reports of the execution of U.S. soldiers taken prisoner by the Filipinos led to disproportionate reprisals by American forces. Many U.S. officers and soldiers called the war a "nigger killing business."[citation needed]

In 1914, Dean C. Worcester, U.S. Secretary of the Interior for the Philippines (1901–1913) described "the regime of civilisation and improvement which started with American occupation and resulted in developing naked savages into cultivated and educated men." Nevertheless, some Americans, such as Mark Twain, deeply opposed American involvement/imperialism in the Philippines, leading to the abandonment of attempts to construct a permanent U.S. naval base and using it as an entry point to the Chinese market. In 1916, Congress guaranteed the independence of the Philippines by 1945.

World War I: Changes in Imperialism

World War I brought about the fall of several empires in Europe. This had repercussions around the world. The defeated Central Powers included Germany and the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Germany lost all of its colonies in Asia. German New Guinea, a part of Papua New Guinea, became administered by Australia. German possessions and concessions in China, including Qingdao, became the subject of a controversy during the Paris Peace Conference when the Beiyang government in China agreed to cede these interests to Japan, to the anger of many Chinese people. Although the Chinese diplomats refused to sign the agreement, these interests were ceded to Japan with the support of the United States and the United Kingdom.

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 petroleum first in Iran and then in the Arab lands in the interbellum provided a new focus for activity on the part of the United Kingdom, France, and the United States.


In 1641, all Westerners were thrown out of Japan. For the next two centuries, Japan was free from Western influence, except for at the port of Nagasaki, which Japan allowed Dutch merchant vessels to enter on a limited basis.

Japan's freedom from Western penetration ended on 8 July 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy sailed a squadron of black-hulled warships into Edo (modern Tokyo) harbor. The Japanese told Perry to sail to Nagasaki but he refused. Perry sought to present a letter from U.S. President Millard Fillmore to the emperor which demanded concessions from Japan. Japanese authorities responded by stating that they could not present the letter directly to the emperor, but scheduled a meeting on July 14 with a representative of the emperor. On 14 July, the squadron sailed towards the shore, giving a demonstration of their cannon's firepower thirteen times. Perry landed with a large detachment of Marines and presented the emperor's representative with Fillmore's letter. Perry said he would return, and did so, this time with even more war ships. The U.S. show of force led to Japan's concession to the Convention of Kanagawa on 31 March 1854. These events made Japanese authorities aware that the country was lacking technologically and needed to industrialise in order to keep their power. This realisation eventually led to the Meiji Restoration.

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 a drive for imperial conquest which began with the defeat of China in 1895.

Taiwan, ceded by Qing Dynasty China, became the first Japanese colony. In 1899 Japan won agreement from the great powers' to abandon extraterritoriality, and an alliance with the United Kingdom established it in 1902 as an international power. Its spectacular defeat of Russia in 1905 gave it the southern portion of the island of Sakhalin, the former Russian lease of the Liaodong Peninsula with Port Arthur (Lüshunkou), and extensive rights in Manchuria (see the Russo-Japanese War).

Japan's encroachment on Korea began with the 1876 Treaty of Kanghwa with the Joseon Dynasty of Korea, increased with the 1895 assassination of Empress Myeongseong and the 1905 Eulsa Treaty, and was completed with the 1910 Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty when Korea was formally annexed to the Japanese empire, see Korea under Japanese rule.

Japan was now one of the most powerful forces in the Far East, and in 1914, it entered World War I on the side of the United Kingdom, 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 Jiaozhou'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 region; full-scale war with China followed in 1937, drawing Japan toward an overambitious bid for Asian hegemony (Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere), which ultimately led to defeat and the loss of all its overseas territories after World War II (see Japanese expansionism and Japanese nationalism).

Post World War II era

Decolonisation and the rise of nationalism in Asia

In the aftermath of World War II, European colonies, controlling more than one billion people throughout the world, still ruled most of the Middle East, South East Asia, and the Indian Subcontinent. However, the image of European pre-eminence was shattered by the wartime Japanese occupations of large portions of British, French, and Dutch territories in the Pacific. The destabilisation of European rule led to the rapid growth of nationalist movements in Asia — especially in Indonesia, Malaya, Burma, and French Indochina.

The war, however, only accelerated forces already in existence undermining Western imperialism in Asia. Throughout the colonial world, the processes of urbanisation and capitalist investment created professional merchant classes that emerged as new Westernised elites. While imbued with Western political and economic ideas, these classes increasingly grew to resent their unequal status under European rule.

British in India and the Middle East

In India, the westward movement of Japanese forces towards Bengal during World War II had led to major concessions on the part of British authorities to Indian nationalist leaders. In 1947, the United Kingdom, devastated by war and embroiled in economic crisis at home, granted British India its independence as two nations: India and Pakistan. The following year independence was granted to Burma and Ceylon.

In the Middle East, the United Kingdom granted independence to Jordan in 1946 and two years later ended its mandate of Palestine, an action that led to the creation of the state of Israel and decades of bitter wars between this new nation and the Arab world, which continues to this day. (see Arab-Israeli conflict)

Dutch East Indies

Following the end of the war, nationalists in Indonesia demanded complete independence from the Netherlands. A brutal conflict ensued, and finally, in 1949, through United Nations mediation, the Dutch East Indies achieved independence, becoming the new nation of Indonesia. Dutch imperialism moulded this new multi-ethnic state comprising roughly 3,000 islands of the Indonesian archipelago with a population at the time of over 100 million.

The end of Dutch rule opened up latent tensions between the roughly 300 distinct ethnic groups of the islands, with the major ethnic fault line being between the Javanese and the non-Javanese.

United States in Asia

In the Philippines, the U.S. remained committed to its previous pledges to grant the islands their independence, and the Philippines became the first of the Western-controlled Asian colonies to be granted independence post-World War II. However, the Philippines remained under pressure to adopt a political and economic system similar to their old imperial master.

This aim was greatly complicated by the rise of new political forces. During the war, the Hukbalahap (People's Army), which had strong ties to the Communist Party of the Philippines (PKP), fought against the Japanese occupation of the Philippines and won strong popularity among many sectors of the Filipino working class and peasantry. In 1946, the PKP participated in elections as part of the Democratic Alliance. However, with the onset of the Cold War, its growing political strength drew a reaction from the ruling government and the United States, resulting in the repression of the PKP and its associated organisations. In 1948, the PKP began organizing an armed struggle against the government and continued U.S. military presence. In 1950, the PKP created the People's Liberation Army (Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan), which mobilised thousands of troops throughout the islands. The insurgency lasted until 1956, when the PKP gave up armed struggle.

In 1968, the PKP underwent a split, and in 1969 the Maoist faction of the PKP created the New People's Army. Maoist rebels re-launched an armed struggle against the government and the U.S. military presence in the Philippines, which continues to this day.

France in Indochina

Post-war resistance to French rule

France remained determined to retain its control of Indochina. However, in Hanoi, in 1945, a broad front of nationalists and socialists led by Ho Chi Minh established an independent Republic of Vietnam, commonly referred to as the Viet Minh regime by Western outsiders. France, seeking to regain control of Vietnam, countered with a vague offer of self-government under French rule. France's offers were unacceptable to Vietnamese nationalists; and in December 1946, war broke out between France and the Viet Minh. Meanwhile, the French managed to set up a puppet regime in Saigon in 1950. The U.S. then recognised the regime in Saigon, and provided the French military effort massive military aid.

The French were also forced to deal with resistance in Cambodia. In 1945, Cambodia declared its independence as the Kingdom of Kampuchea, with Sihanouk installed as monarch and Son Ngoc Thanh acting as prime minister. The French wanted to reassert control, but were unable to act at the time. The United Kingdom supported France's efforts to reassert its control of Cambodia, but were unable to act. On October 8, 1945, the British arrived in Phnom Penh with a detachment of Nepali Gurkhas. Thanh was arrested, and the government was overthrown, with the French put back in charge.

Later, anti-colonial militants retreated into the countryside and formed armed groups known as the Khmer Issarak ("Khmer Independence"). They operated initially along the border with Thailand and were assisted by the Thai government. In the countryside, French forces fought the Khmer Issarak. However, the French were not able to fully regain their control of Cambodia. On 17 April 1950, the first national conference of the Khmer resistance was held and the United Issarak Front was created, with Son Ngoc Minh at the head. Sihanouk demanded sovereignty from the French and on 9 November 1953, Cambodia was granted independence.

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, the French war against the Viet Minh regime, begun in 1946, continued for nearly eight years. The French were gradually worn down by guerrilla and jungle fighting. The turning point for France occurred at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which resulted in the surrender of ten thousand French troops. Paris was forced to accept a political settlement that year at the Geneva Conference, which led to a precarious set of agreements regarding the future political status of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Postcolonialism and the Vietnam War

As France withdrew from Indochina, the U.S. moved into France's old role in supporting the pro-Western Saigon regime, leading to the Vietnam war.

Post-colonialism and war in Cambodia

The United States also became involved in Cambodia's domestic politics. The U.S. became increasingly unhappy with Sihanouk because of his non-aligned stance in the Cold War and the war between the Hanoi and Saigon regimes in Vietnam.

U.S. armed forces then entered Cambodia from the Vietnam-Cambodia border. However, massive protest by students and workers in the U.S. forced the US to withdraw its land forces from Cambodia. Sihanouk declared Lon Nol's government illegitimate and formed a government-in-exile in Beijing known as the Royal Government of the National Union of Kampuchea (GRUNK) and a political coalition in Cambodia known as the National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK), which in turn was aligned with the Cambodian People's National Liberation Armed Forces (CPNLAF). The U.S. Air Force attacked the base of the CPNLAF, the Cambodian countryside, dropping hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs, killing many people. By 1975, the CPNLAF had defeated Lon Nol's army and on 17 April 1975 the CPNLAF entered Phnom Penh and ousted Lon Nol's regime. However, the loose coalition behind CPNLAF proved unable to establish itself as a stable postcolonial regime. The ensuing Cambodian Civil War resulted in decades of political turmoil and the emergence of the Khmer Rouge, making Cambodia the stage to one of the bloodiest conflicts in the 20th century.

List of European colonial acquisitions in Asia

  • British Burma (1824–1948, merged with India by the British from 1886 to 1937)
  • Ceylon (now Sri Lanka):
Portuguese Ceylon (1505–1658)
Dutch Ceylon (1656–1796)
British Ceylon (1815–1948)
Portuguese India (1510–1961)
French India (1769–1954)
Dutch India (1605–1825)
Danish India (1696–1869)
British India (1613–1947)
British East India Company (1757–1858)
British Raj (1858–1947)
Portuguese Malacca (1511–1641)
Dutch Malacca (1641–1824)
British Malaya, included:
Federation of Malaya (under British rule, 1948–1963)
  • Labuan (1846–1963)
  • British North Borneo (1882–1963)
  • Colony of Sarawak (1946–1963)
Spanish Philippines (1565–1898, 2nd longest European occupation in Asia, 333 years),
Commonwealth of the Philippines, United States colony (1898–1946, excluding the Japanese occupation during World War II)
Spanish Formosa (1626–1642)
Dutch Formosa (1624–1662)

References and further reading


  1. ^ M. Weisner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe 1450–1789 (Cambridge, 2006)
  2. ^ Note: In 1819 the standing army consisted of over 7,000 European and 5,000 indigenous troops. See: Willems, Wim ‘Sporen van een Indisch verleden (1600-1942).’ (COMT, Leiden, 1994). Chapter I, P.24 ISBN 90 71042 44 8
  3. ^ Klemen, L. "Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942". 
  4. ^ Taiwan's Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683–1895. By Emma Jinhua Teng. Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Asia
  5. ^ Tyler (2003), p. 55

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