Far East

Far East
   Usually referred to today as East and Southeast Asia, the Far East encompasses the region of Asia that reaches geographically from the Malay Peninsula in the southwest to Korea and Japan in the northeast. Politically, a large part of the region belonged to the old Chinese world at the beginning of the Age of Imperialism, bound to the Manchu court in Peking by cultural ties and tributary relationships. Europeans had only a tenuous foothold there at that time: the Philippines were part of the Spanish Empire, and the Portuguese held Macao and, in present-day Indonesia, had accepted various forms of subservience to the Dutch. Western traders were allowed limited intercourse with Chinese merchants in the southern port city of Canton, but China had twice, in 1793–95 and 1816, rejected Britain’s demand for more regular diplomatic and commercial relations. Japan finally refused commercial or political intercourse with the outside world.
   Imperialism, understood in a cultural sense, includes the development of a system of meanings in which the Far East was “far away” from a West that began to perceive itself as the sole and undisputed center of civilization. Notions like the Chinese view according to which China was the center of the world and countries beyond East Asia did not count for much were swept away by the superior force of Western industry, arms, and organization. And although eighteenth-century Europeans were ready to admire China and Japan as ancient civilizations with important cultural achievements to their credit, this attitude gave way, around 1830, to the picture of a stagnant, decadent East to be uplifted and civilized by the more advanced West. Confidence in the superiority of the West remained predominant for the rest of the Age of Imperialism and was rattled only by the experience of Europe’s near self-destruction in World War I. Imperialism was not primarily a cultural process, however, and it was power in its various forms that determined that the Far East was “far away,” China was no longer “central,” not even for the Chinese, and Japan was no longer able to maintain her self-imposed isolation.
   The geopolitical situation after the defeat of France in 1815 was marked by the predominant position of the British Empire. In the Far East, British policy was shaped by her rule over India and by her trading interests, especially in the highly profitable exchange of Chinese tea and silver against Indian opium. By mid-century, the increasing superiority of British - and later, more generally Western - industry, technology, arms, and organization had markedly increased the cost-benefit ratio of overseas expansion; and additional incentives for expansion were provided by the search for new markets, whether demanded by industrialists and traders or preemptively pursued by politicians, the desire for national greatness, competition between the imperialist powers, and the revival of the Christian missionary enterprise. Britain took Singapore, controlling the Malacca Straits, which link the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea, in 1819. In three wars in 1824–26, 1852–53 and 1885, India’s neighbor Burma, which was unwilling to accept commercial relations and a subservient position vis-à-vis India, was also conquered. But otherwise the British were reluctant to expand territorially and kept in check Indian officials and local adventurers who sought to extend British possessions. In 1816, they returned the Dutch colonies seized during the Napoleonic Wars, and they continued to respect the domains of Spain and the Netherlands because these smaller powers kept out stronger rivals and ensured a minimum of order and commercial openness. Therefore throughout Southeast Asia, Western direct administration remained limited to the pre-1815 colonies for much of the century, and expansion took the form of private adventurism or of contractual relationships with local rulers. Indeed, in the most important instances, imperialism in the Far East led to “informal empire” rather than to outright colonial rule. China, Siam, and Japan all escaped colonialism - the latter even acquiring colonies of her own - but they did not escape other forms of institutionalized Western privilege and predominance. The First Opium War, 1839–1842, was the starting point of this form of expansionism: China, concerned about the economic and social dislocation caused by the opium trade, outlawed the importation of the drug and ordered the destruction of stocks accumulated in Canton. Britain retaliated and quickly defeated China. The policy of Britain’s foreign minister, Lord Palmerston, is a perfect illustration of the “imperialism of free trade.” Palmerston did not want to conquer China, but to make her accept free trade - notably, but not exclusively, in opium - and diplomatic relations following the forms developed among Western nations. Consequently, the peace settlement, the Treaty of Nanking of 1842, did not mention opium except in connection with compensation for unlawfully destroyed property. Instead, it forced China to open five treaty ports to foreign trade and residence, to limit her import duties to 5 percent, to grant foreigners extraterritoriality, and to accept official relations with foreign consuls. Further provisions included the cession of Hong Kong and a war indemnity. In 1856–1860, Britain, joined by France, again went to war against China, imposing a revised treaty, the Treaty of Tientsin, that provided for diplomatic representation at Peking, the creation of a Chinese foreign ministry, the Tsungli yamen, the opening of ports on the Yangtze River, freedom of movement for Christian missionaries, and an end to the Chinese practice of referring to Westerners as “barbarians” in official communication.
   Elsewhere, the fate of China did not go unnoticed. Japan signed treaties modeled on the Treaty of Nanking in 1854 and 1858 under the threat of naval action from the United States, while Siam’s leadership correctly figured a slightly less onerous settlement might be possible when entered into voluntarily, which happened in 1855. Korea accepted treaty relations with Japan and with Western powers in 1876. Informal empire thus rested on a series of “unequal treaties” between Western and Asian powers - “unequal,” because the privileges conferred on the Western side were not reciprocal. Asian states retained their independent statehood, but lost part of their sovereignty and were constantly exposed to political or military interference. An important element of the treaty regime was the most-favored-nation clause, which automatically granted each “treaty power” all the privileges acquired by any one of them. This clause guaranteed the cosmopolitan character of Western dominance in the Far East, embodying the spirit of “a fair field and no favours” in which Britain, confident in her industrial, financial, and commercial superiority, led the opening up of the world for free trade and civil international relations - voluntarily if possible and by force if necessary.
   Informal empire presupposed a measure of stability and efficiency on the part of Asian states, and restraint on the part of the West. However, the new character and urgency of Asian-Western relations was an important factor of destabilization throughout the Far East, although often in conjunction with internal factors such as ethnic and religious tensions and economic difficulties. In many parts of the Far East, the mid-nineteenth century therefore was a time of turbulence and rapid change. In China, the decline of the state’s institutions and limits to economic growth - even as the population increased from 150 million to 430 million between 1700 and 1850 - became apparent at the end of the eighteenth century. Conditions were aggravated by opium imports, corruption, and the political and military pressure of the West. Rebellions occurred with increasing frequency, the largest of which, the Taiping Rebellion cost 20 million lives between 1850 and 1864 and severely weakened the power and finances of the Chinese state.
   Still following the lead of Britain, the powers pursued the “co-operative policy” of seeking to keep in power the Qing Dynasty during the years from 1860 to1895. Having accepted the Treaties of Tientsin, the Qing upheld the treaty regime, as the Western powers gently prodded them in the direction of reforms. Western soldiers under Charles Gordon fought against the Taiping, and the Imperial Maritime Customs was created, an administrative branch of the Chinese state organized on Western lines and staffed by Westerners, mostly Britons, under the leadership of Sir Robert Hart (1835–1911), which collected China’s maritime duties and thereby provided the central government with its most important and most reliable source of income. The leading role in defeating the Taiping and introducing economic and military reforms, however, was played neither by Westerners nor by the imperial administration, but by local elites and provincial governors such as Tseng Kuo-fan (1811–1872) and Li Hung-chang (1823–1901). While the central government remained skeptical of modern technology and refused to authorize the construction of railways, provincial governors established China’s first modern shipyards, arsenals, iron, and textile plants. The principles on which these enterprises were organized, “official supervision and merchant management” and “Chinese essence- Western application”, however, implied that reforms stopped short of institutional change and in the end failed.
   Meanwhile, Western penetration of the Chinese interior remained limited. Commerce did not develop in the proportions expected by those who had enthused about the “market with 400 million customers,” and the activity of Western trading houses, although profitable, mostly remained confined to the treaty ports. As a result of quickly expanding Chinese emigration, there quickly were more East Asians in America than Westerners in East Asia. The only Westerners to penetrate deeply into the Chinese interior were Christian missionaries. The success they encountered in their endeavors was, like that of traders, disappointing. Nevertheless, missionary activity was the cause of severe and permanent conflict with local elites and populations and of frequent disturbances, sometimes involving the loss of life and always leading to demands for compensation supported by foreign consuls and, occasionally, gunboats.
   A stark contrast to developments in China is presented by Japan. Like China, Japan experienced economic and social problems in the early nineteenth century and was pushed into internal conflict over how to deal with the threat from the West and the enforced opening to foreign commerce. There was violent opposition against the Tokugawa sh¯ogunate that for many Japanese seemed too accommodating toward the Western powers, and in response to antiforeign rebellions, Western gunboats shelled Japanese cities in 1863–64. The Shogunate lost support and was abolished in 1868, power passing back into the hands of the tenno, the emperor. The Meiji Restoration was restorative only insofar as it reestablished the power of the tenno; otherwise, it started one of the most remarkable, comprehensive, and swift social transformations in human history. Guidance for the changes was provided by the slogan “rich country-strong army.” The old class system of samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants was abolished and a Western-style administration replaced the old feudal system. A new centralized tax system provided the state with the means to put itself at the forefront of change. Compulsory education and military service were introduced. Modern industrial enterprises were set up by the state, some of them becoming competitive exporters after their privatization in the 1880s. Highranking statesmen were sent on study missions abroad and foreign experts brought to Japan.
   Japan passed through a phase of enthusiasm for things Western in the 1870s and experienced a conservative backlash in the 1880s, all the while developing her own version of modernity. Under the influence of conservative statesmen with firsthand experience of the West like Iwakura Tomomi (1825–83) and Hirobumi Ito (1841–1909), a concept for Japan’s future political institutions took shape. Partly to fend off demands for parliamentary democracy, the tenno in 1881 promised a constitution and a national assembly. In 1889, Japan adopted a constitution influenced by that of imperial Germany, with an elected legislature and a government responsible only to the emperor. Legal and constitutional reform allowed Japan to negotiate an end to the “unequal treaties” by 1899. Thus within two decades after the Meiji restoration, Japan was a constitutional centralized state with a modern army and modern industry, Western-style legal institutions, and a modern education system. Within two more decades, she would become a great power with colonies of her own, and a cultural hub from which Western knowledge and methods were diffused, in adapted form, throughout the Far East.
   On the fringes of the Far East, European territorial expansion accelerated when France and, later, Germany, the United States, and Japan became more active, and also because the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 greatly improved communication with Europe. The nature of colonial rule, however, did not change much until the turn of the century. In 1859, France occupied Saigon in response to the murder of Christian missionaries, and in 1862, she acquired the surrounding territory of Cochinchina from Annam. Cambodia, feeling threatened by her neighbor Siam, accepted a French protectorate in 1863. France then concentrated on the search for an access to the China market via the Mekong and the Red River in Tonkin. These advances, not always authorized from Paris, provoked the British move against Burma in 1885, and a war with China that defended France’s traditional hegemony over Annam, 1883–85. The war cost Premier Jules Ferry his job, but nevertheless resulted in the acquisition of Annam and Tonkin. The French possessions in Indochina were unified in the “Union Indochinoise” in 1887, and rounded off in 1893, after France had sent gunboats to Bangkok and forced Siam to surrender the Western part of Laos.
   The Dutch were confronted with armed uprisings in their empire, especially the Java war, of 1825–30, and with the need to cover the costs of colonial administration. For the latter purpose the exploitative “cultivation system” was created, under which peasants were required to produce crops for export instead of being taxed. From the 1870s, state influence and monopolies were reduced and a free trade regime set up, and trade greatly expanded. In the Spanish Philippines, restrictions on foreign trade were lifted already in 1834, and British and American merchants quickly acquired a dominant position in the commercial life of the colony, which developed a strong export agriculture. Spanish rule, however, was increasingly resented as nationalist and liberal sentiment strengthened. When conflict over Cuba led to the Spanish-American War in 1898, the government of the United States was negotiating with the Philippine rebels, but the rebels quickly changed their attitude when they saw that the Spanish were prepared to surrender and hand the colony over to the Americans. Thus the United States, long an unlikely colonial power, acquired an empire of its own. To the north, finally, Russia occupied Siberia in 1858, and by the end of the century, the rivalry between Russia and Britain stretched all along Asia, from the Bosporus to Manchuria.
   The intensified imperialist competition resulting from new challenges to Britain’s geopolitical hegemony apparent from the late 1870s reached China after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 and the “Triple Intervention” of Russia, France and Germany against Japan’s territorial demands. Military defeat exposed China’s weakness, and she became the focus of great power rivalry. The Far East took center stage in world politics for the next decade, drawing Japan and the United States into a regional balance of power that was no longer purely European. An intense rivalry developed under the close scrutiny of millions of jingoistic armchair strategists in living rooms, universities, parliaments, and editorial offices. When Germany, disappointed in her demands for “compensation” for the 1895 intervention, seized the port of Kiaochow in 1897, the “scramble for concessions” was on: China was forced by the other powers to grant them advantages comparable to those extracted by Germany, such as the 99-year lease of Kiaochow plus mining and railway concessions in the surrounding province of Shantung. Thus Russia acquired Port Arthur and the right to build a railway across Manchuria, France obtained Kwang-chow Wan and permission to build a railway from Tonkin into Yunnan, Britain got Weihaiwei, the enlargement of Hong Kong, and contracts to build several large railway lines for the Chinese government. Governments and public opinion in Europe began to debate the future of China - Could she remain independent? Should she be divided into semi-independent “spheres of influence” allotted to the great powers? Or would she collapse and have to be partitioned? In the end, the United States, fearing exclusion from China, proposed a joint declaration to guarantee an “open door,” to the trade and investment of third powers and preclude any exclusive spheres of influence, which was unenthusiastically accepted by all the powers except Russia. The surge of imperialist aggression triggered varied responses in China. A movement demanding much more radical change than the “self-strengtheners” appeared and their leaders, K’ang Yu-wei (1858–1927) and Liang Ch’i-ch’ao (1873–1929) gained the ear of emperor Kuang-hsü (1875–1908) during the “Hundred days” of reforms in 1898, but the reformers were removed from power - and some of them executed - when ex-regent Tsu Hsi placed the emperor under house arrest and reasserted her leadership. At the same time, the Boxer movement opposed to anything Western was gaining ground in Northern China, strengthened by indignation at expansionism in the region, especially by Germany, ecological and economic problems, as well as constant conflict with Christian missionaries. When the movement became too strong to control, Ts’u Hsi decided to give it official sanction and to allow the siege of the diplomatic quarter in Peking by the Boxers in summer 1900. In the face of this situation, the unity underlying the rivalry between the powers quickly asserted itself, and all powers with interests in China jointly intervened. China was defeated and had to accept yet another indemnity, as well as the stationing of foreign troops in Peking.
   The Boxer Insurrection and the expensive occupation of parts of North China convinced most of the powers that colonizing China was too costly to contemplate. Most of them also sought to avoid a major international crisis in the Far East. The only clash between imperialist powers involved Russia and Japan, for whom the Far East was geographically not far away. Russia had systematically strengthened her position in the Far East through the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway between 1891and 1905 and by stationing troops in Northern China during the Boxer Insurrection. Japan, concerned about her position in Manchuria and in neighboring Korea, demanded Russia’s withdrawal, and attacked Port Arthur when Russia refused. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05 was won decisively by Japan, after resource-intensive combat foreshadowing World War I. It was the last major international crisis concerning the Far East before the Great War, and it is seen as a major turning point in diplomatic, military, and indeed world history. In international relations generally, the decade witnessed significant realignments. Britain, feeling threatened by Germany and Russia, concluded the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902 and resolved her difficulties with France in the Entente Cordiale of 1904. Japan’s victory permitted the completion of this diplomatic realignment with the “Far Eastern Agreements,” a series of separate bilateral treaties that removed the remaining tensions between defeated Russia, financially exhausted Japan, Britain, and France. Germany was left out and started complaining about being “encircled,” forgetting that the rash methods of German Weltpolitik had provided the spur for the others to liquidate their differences in the first place. For some, the year 1905 marked the beginning of a global challenge against the West. Fears of a “Yellow Peril,” initially drummed up in Europe to help justify the Triple Intervention, now gripped the United States, where Japan was seen as a new rival in the Pacific. The challenge, however, was an ambivalent one. As contemporary observers noted, Japan’s victory was not only that of an Asian over a European power, but also of a constitutional, rapidly industrializing state over an autocratic peasant empire. It gave an important boost and a new direction to anti-imperialist sentiment throughout the Far East and beyond, and it convinced Asian nationalists that the way to emancipation was to follow the model of Japan by concentrating on the creation of an industrial economy, a constitutional political system and a modern army. Chinese students went to Japan in ever greater numbers, some joining revolutionary Kuomintang, and returned to staff the modern army and government departments that were being created after the Boxer fiasco.
   In China, Britain and the United States, now supported by France and Germany, sought to defend informal empire by pitting Western financial power against the weakened military-backed expansionism of Russia and Japan. Most of China’s railways were constructed with Western capital in the short period between 1903 and 1914. Large investments in China’s railways and government loans made the powers interested in propping up the Qing and the conservative reformers around Chang Chi-tung (1837–1909) and Yuan Shih-k’ai (1859–1916) who wished to centralize power in Peking with the help of Western money and technology. But China’s increasingly nationalist reform movement demanded railway construction under Chinese control. Nationalists turned against both the powers and a dynasty that nationalists accused of being both alien, “Manchu,” and weak in foreign policy. Both grievances combined in the revolution of October 1911, which led to the downfall of the Qing and the establishment of a republic. Revolutionary troubles further weakened China politically and financially and left her without defenses against Japan when the European powers started fighting each other in 1914. Japanese nationalism remained intense after the war against Russia, and Japan committed strongly to colonization in Korea - a Japanese protectorate since 1905 and a colony since 1910 - and to the exploitation of the Japanese sphere of influence in Manchuria. Economic growth continued after 1900, in part fuelled by government subsidies paid out of the Chinese war indemnity of 1895. In politics, government based on parties and parliamentary majorities slowly became the rule; however, military and colonial expenditure and domestic investments caused financial strains and political crises.
   The process of carving up the region was completed by 1910. Korea was absorbed by Japan, Siam’s existence had been guaranteed in Anglo-French agreements in 1896 and 1904, and her borders with the neighboring colonial territories were finally settled in 1907–09. In the Philippines, the United States had to impose direct rule in a costly war against the liberation movement it had initially supported when the islands were Spanish, but then succeeded in coopting the nationalist elites by setting up an elected legislature and promising eventual independence. The Dutch fought a long war from the 1870s to the early 1900s to impose rule on Sumatra. In all colonial territories, the creation of an administrative and economic infrastructure accelerated after the turn of the century. Direct administration through Western-style institutions now replaced earlier forms of rule by local vassals of a dominant - either colonial or domestic - government. Railway construction was the most important aspect of infrastructure improvement in most territories, and the development of natural resources - plantation crops, tin, rice - for export on the world markets was the focus of economic policies.
   By 1914, the process of imperial expansion in the Far East seemed to have brought about a new equilibrium. Colonial frontiers were now neatly drawn and largely undisputed; China and Siam were seeking to play the role of independent nation states; Japan was already integrated into the great power system. Yet there were strains, such as Japanese expansionism, China’s fragility, and the beginnings of modern anticolonial resistance everywhere. Events in the Far East since the turn of the century began to foreshadow those of the post-1914 world: the end of European hegemony, the rise of the United States and of Japan, economic nationalism, and the destructive character of industrialized mass warfare.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>.
    Bayly, C. A. The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons . Oxford: Blackwell, 2004;
    Beasley, William G. The Rise of Modern Japan: Political, Economic and Social Change since 1850 . London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2000;
    Cain, Peter J., and A. G. Hopkins. British Imperialism, 1688-2000 . Harlow: Longman, 2001;
    Girault, René. Diplomatie européenne: Nations et impérialismes, 1871-1914 . Paris: Armand Colin, 1997;
    Hsü, Immanuel C. The Rise of Modern China . New York: Oxford University Press, 2000;
    Osterhammel, Jürgen. Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview . Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2002;
    Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China . London: Hutchinson, 1990;
    Tarling, Nicholas, ed. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia . Vol. 2/1: From c. 1800 to the 1930s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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