Sino-French War

Sino-French War
   A conflict between China and France over Vietnam. The Sino-French War revealed the inadequacy of China’s modernization efforts such as the Self-Strengthening Movement of the 1860s, as the imperial Qing government was unable to act effectively and decisively while facing a national crisis. Historically, Vietnam was China’s major protectorate in the south. Since 1664, the rulers of Vietnam had sent more than 50 tribute missions to Beijing. During the mid-nineteenth century, however, France began to colonize southern Vietnam by sending its forces to protect Catholic priests and their converts. In 1874, a Franco-Vietnamese treaty of “Peace and Alliance” was reached. The French acquired the right to navigate the Red River and began to expand into northern Vietnam by stationing troops in Hanoi and Haiphong. Facing the growing French encroachment, the ruling Nguyen dynasty of Vietnam asked the Chinese for protection. Unwilling to concede its influence in the region, the Chinese government dispatched troops in 1883 from the Yunnan and Guangxi Provinces across border into Tonkin, where they engaged the French in a series of battles.
   While the hostilities dragged on the frontline without decisive victories, the Chinese imperial court was divided between the appeasement wing of Viceroy Li Hongzhang (1823–1901) and the Purists’ hard-line advocacy of war to defend China’s honor and uphold its obligations to a tributary state. After further French advances, Prince Gong (1832–1898) and the Grand Council were dismissed, and Zhang Zhidong (1837–1909) was appointed governor general of Guangdong and Guangxi, in charge of military affairs with the French. Concurrently on the diplomatic front, in May 1884 Li Hongzhang managed to negotiate a settlement with France in which the two countries agreed to make the area a joint protectorate. Although no indemnity was required, the so-called Li–Fournier agreement specified the Chinese withdrawal and the recognition of French interests in Vietnam. This agreement, however, was rejected by the Chinese government when the conservative war party emerged with force and began to pressure the court to take a hawkish approach against the French aggression. Therefore, fighting resumed when a French ultimatum expired in August 1884, and both sides dispatched reinforcement troops to northern Vietnam.
   Although on the land the French forces stayed on the offensive, taking control of the delta region and pushing toward the Chinese border in March 1885, the Chinese army recaptured the strategic Zhennan Pass, a surprising turn of events that led to the downfall of the French cabinet. Along the Chinese coast, the newly established imperial Qing navy was nonetheless no match for the French fleet. Although China had more than 50 modern warships, they were under four separate commands of the Beiyang, Nanyang, Fujian, and Guangdong fleets. Because of bureaucratic rivalry, there was no coordinated national war, as Li Hongzhang and Zeng Gongquan (1824–1890) were reluctant to mobilize the two major fleets under their commands. When facing the French assault, the Chinese naval officers were poorly trained, ill informed, disorganized, and indecisive. In August 1884, French warships attacked Jilong in northern Taiwan and destroyed 11 vessels of the Chinese Fujian Fleet established by Viceroy Zuo Zongtang (1812–1885), and demolished the Fuzhou Shipyard constructed in 1866 with the aid of French engineers. After an extra year of costly warfare, the wavering Qing government was ready for a new settlement. Finally in June 1885, Li signed a peace treaty in Paris based on the original Li–Fournier agreement. Consequently, the French protectorate of Vietnam was recognized, and the historical Sino-Vietnamese tributary relationship was terminated.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>; <>.
    Chere, Lewis M. The Diplomacy of the Sino-French War 1883–1885: Global Complications of an Undeclared War. Notre Dame, IN: Cross Cultural Publications, 1989;
    Eastman, Lloyd E. Throne and Mandarins: China’s Search for a Policy during the Sino-French Controversy, 1880–1885. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.

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

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