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Imperialism in Asia

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



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 organization 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 labor exerted a powerful attraction.

The Partitioning of Asia by the Europeans

The British in India

The collapse of Mughal India and the rise of the British East India Company

Main article: Company rule in India

The British East India Company, formed in 1600, although in direct competition with French and Dutch interests until 1763, extended its control over almost the whole subcontinent in the century following the subjugation of Bengal at the 1757 Battle of Plassey. The British East India Company made great advances as the Mughal dynasty, seething with corruption, oppression, and revolt, 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 Muslim faith, was disastrous. By 1690, when Mughal territorial expansion reached its greatest extent, Aurangzeb's India encompassed the entire Indian peninsula. 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

Main article: British Raj

Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive
Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive

Meanwhile, for more than a century, English and French trading companies had been competing against one another for supremacy, and by the middle of the 18th century a monumental battle for empire was taking place. During the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) 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, characterized 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 which 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 India. Some local rulers were forced to accept its overlordship; others were deprived of their territories. Some portions of the subcontinent were administered by the British directly; in others native dynasties were retained under British supervision.

Until 1858, however, much of the subcontinent 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. 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.

The rise of Indian nationalism

Main article: Indian independence movement

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 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 organization 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

In contrast to Britain, France, which had lost its empire to the British by the end of the eighteenth 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 Britain and was supported intellectually by the concept of the superiority of French culture and France's special "mission civilisatrice"—the civilizing of the native through assimilation to French culture. The immediate pretext for French expansionism in Indochina was the protection of French religious missions in the area, coupled with as desire to find a southern route to China through Tonkin, the northern region of northern Vietnam.

French religious and commercial interests were established in Indochina as early as the seventeenth 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 end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. A mid-nineteenth 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 immediate cause. In 1856 the Chinese executed a French missionary in southeastern China, and in 1857 the Vietnamese emperor, faced with a domestic crisis, tried to destroy foreign influences in his country by executing the Spanish bishop of Tonkin. Under Napoleon III, France decided that Catholicism would be eliminated in the Far East if France did not go to its aid, and accordingly the French joined the British against China from 1857 to 1860 and took action against Vietnam as well. By 1860 the French occupied Saigon.

By a Franco-Vietnamese treaty in 1862, the Vietnamese emperor ceded France outright the three provinces of Cochin China in the south; 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 Cochin China as a direct colony, and Annam (central Vietnam), Tonkin, and Cambodia as protectorates in one degree or another. Laos too was soon brought under French "protection."

By the beginning of the twentieth century France had created an empire in Indochina nearly 50 percent larger than the mother country. A governor-general in Hanoi ruled Cochin China directly and the other regions through a system of residents. Theoretically, the French maintained the precolonial rulers and administrative structures in Annam, Tonkin, Cambodia, and Laos, but in fact the governor-generalship was a centralized 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 to all intents and purposes in the process of erosion. 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.

Imperialism in China

A shocked mandarin in Manchu robe in the back, with Queen Victoria (UK), Wilhelm II (Germany), Nicholas II (Russia), Marianne (France), and a samurai (Japan) stabbing into a plate with Chine ("China" in French) written on it
A shocked mandarin in Manchu robe in the back, with Queen Victoria (UK), Wilhelm II (Germany), Nicholas II (Russia), Marianne (France), and a samurai (Japan) stabbing into a plate with Chine ("China" in French) written on it

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 needed 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 subsistence rates.

Imperialist ambitions and rivalries in the Far East inevitably came to focus on the vast empire of China, with more than a quarter of the world's population. That China survived as a more-or-less independent state owes much to the resilience of her social and administrative structures, but can also be seen as a reflection of the limitations to which imperialist governments were willing to press their ambitions in the face of similar competing claims.

Formal colonies were often, in hindsight, strategic outposts to protect large zones of 'investment', such as India, Latin America, and China. But Britain, in a sense, continued to adhere to the Cobdenite notion that informal colonialism was preferable--the established consensus among industrial capitalists during the mid nineteenth century between the downfall of Napoleon and the Franco-Prussian War. What changed was not necessarily a preference for colonialism over informal empire, but the attitude toward formal rule in largely tropical areas once considered too 'backward' for trade. Sovereign areas already hospitable to informal empire largely avoided formal rule during the shift to New Imperialism.

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". Following the First Opium War, British commerce, and later capital investment by other newly industrializing powers, was securable with a smaller degree of formal control than in Southeast Asia, West Africa, and the Pacific. Western powers did intervene militarily 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 credited with having saved the Qing Dynasty from the Taiping insurrection.

It may also be argued, however, that China's size and cohesion compared to pre-colonial societies of Africa made formal subjugation too difficult for any but the broadest coalition of colonialist powers, whose own rivalries would preclude such an outcome. When such a coalition did materialize in 1900, its objective was limited to suppression of the anti-imperialist Boxer Rebellion because of the irreconcilability of Anglo-American aims (the "Open Door " according to which all powers would enjoy commercial access) and the territorial aspirations of Germany and Russia.

The British found it difficult to sell their products in China, 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 Guangzhou (Canton) 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 recognized 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.

During the period 1894-1895, China lost a war against Japan over Korea, and China had to pay huge war reparations ($150 million) and give up Taiwan (Formosa) and nearby islands to Japan. Korea was recognized 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 in 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. As such, nor was it 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 its crushing defeat by Japan in the war of 1904-1905.

Although extraterritorial jurisdiction was abandoned in 1943, foreign rule in 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.

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 simultaneously 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 were aided by the fact that most of the local rulers there (particularly in Tibet) considered the relatively light control of the Chinese to be preferable to the more heavy-handed control of Russia or the British.

Central and Western Asia - The Great Game

Main article: The Great Game

Britain, China and Russia were rivals in the theatre of Central and Western Asia. 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 railroad from Constantinople to Baghdad and 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 who divided the region among themselves.

The Portuguese

The Portuguese, based at Goa and Mellaka , built up the maritime empire in the Indian Ocean to monopolize spice trade. To facilitate China and Japan trade, they got a base at Macao in South China. The Portuguese did not continue to seriously expand in Asia primarily because they had become hugely over-stretched due to the limitations on their colonial expenditure and contemporary naval technology (Both of these factors worked in tandem to make running the Empire extremely expensive). Additionally, the existing Portuguese interests in Asia proved sufficient to generate capital to further finance colonial expansion and entrenchment in areas that were regarded as of greater strategic importance, like locations in Africa and Brazil. As previously mentioned, they were heavily involved with Japanese trade and the first recorded Westerners to have visited Japan were Portuguese: this contact also introduced Christianity and fire-arms into Japan.

Portuguese maritime supremacy was lost to the Dutch in the 17th century, and with this came serious challenges to Portuguese. However, they still clung to Macao, which was declared a Portuguese colony after the Opium War, and settled a new colony in Timor Island. It was only after the mid-20th century that the Portuguese began to relinquish their colonies in Asia (Goa was invaded by India in 1962; East-Timor was abandoned in 1975 and was then invaded by Indonesia; Macao was given to the Chinese as per a treaty in 1999)

The Dutch in the East Indies

The Dutch East India Company established its headquaters in Batavia (Jakarta) in Java Island to take control of spice trade in the early sixteenth century. To facilitate China and Japan trade. the company colonized Taiwan which China did not claim at that time. After the Napoleonic War, the Dutch concentrated the colonial enterprize in the whole East Indies (Indonesia) in the 19th century. The East Indies was lost to the Japanese during the WWII. They had to fight with Indonesian independence forces after the Japanese surrendered to the Allies in 1945.

The United States in Asia

The United States 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 US annexed Hawaii in 1893 and gained control over several other islands in the Pacific during World War II.

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


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 to trade. Similar arrangements followed with all of the European powers.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 led to administrative modernization 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. Taiwan,ceded by the Qing Empire, became the first colony.

In 1899 Japan won the powers' abandonment of extra-territoriality, and an alliance with Britain 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 (now Lüshunkou), 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 it 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 a bid for Pacific hegemony which led to defeat and the loss of its overseas territories in World War II (See Japanese expansionism).

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45