Empire and Imperialism: Asia

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Empire and Imperialism: Asia

Asia has its own long history of large and enduring empires that have rivaled those in the West. The Chinese ideal of a universal empire to be ruled by one "son of heaven" was first actualized by the first Qin emperor in 221 b.c.e., and even though the succeeding centuries saw significant periods of disintegration and divided dynasties, that ideal, though somewhat modified during the last century to encompass only territories inhabited by all Chinese people, has never wavered. Under that system, the emperor ruled the "middle kingdom" directly through a bureaucratic structure of appointed officials and set up a "tributary system" to treat all bordering regions not formally incorporated as well as neighboring countries. Then, by ranking their rulers hierarchically below him in fictive kinship terms, the emperor recognized a Chinese world order with himself as paterfamilias. He expected and welcomed these rulers to send tribute-bearing missions to his capital, and in return, he presented them with gifts of equal or greater value. In practice, these exchanges became a part of delicate diplomatic calibrations reflecting the true relationships between China and its neighbors at any one time, and a channel for international trade. Overall, until the early nineteenth century, such an imperial system worked fairly well in East Asia most of the time because of China's relative geographical isolation and dominant economy and culture in the region. Indeed, from the early seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth century, a succession of powerful Manchu rulers not only conquered the declining Ming Chinese empire, but also went on to more than double China's traditional boundaries by incorporating large regions of northeastern and central Asia that historically belonged to the Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan, Uighur, and other peoples into the new and vigorous Qing Chinese empire.

While this was going on, the rest of the Asian landmass to the Urals and the Caucasus was dominated by four other powerful and expanding empires: Mughal India in the south, Safavid Iran in the southwest, Ottoman Turkey and the Middle East in the west, and Romanov Russia in the central region and the north. The last was led by Russian-speaking Slavs from northeastern Europe, but the other three shared a common origin with the Manchusas nomadic or seminomadic peoples from the steppes of Asia. Their ascendancy followed a pattern of ebb and flow in the continual struggle between farmers and herdsmen. Rising at somewhat different times but all occurring in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, they made use of superior military organization and swift mobility to defeat the wealthier settled societies with their slower reacting standing armies. As for their having to rely on their relatively small numbers to control a large variety of peoples and languages, that was accomplished by their use of tribal solidarity, shared religion, or similar way of life to absorb other tribal groups while preserving their own ethnic identity. Once successfully established in this manner, they would exploit the accumulated resources of their conquered farmland to enhance their strategic strike capabilities, and to further expand their territories. However, inasmuch as these empires settled down and ruled by the same sociopolitical institutions and farm-based economy that they inherited from those they had vanquished, over time they, too, became subject to the same disintegrating dynamics of that traditional order.

In both India and China, social unrest set in as the result of economic and demographic pressures as well as weakening leadership at the top that led to the growth of official malfeasance and general misrule: India by the early eighteenth century, China toward the end of that same century. Similar internal problems emerged to weaken the others. But in each case, instead of a return to the old pattern of ebb and flow of traditional empires, new external forces came in to disrupt that cycle and to bring forth fundamental changes to all these Asian empires.

Imperialism and Market

The new agent of change was Western imperialism. In its traditional form, imperialism as the exercise of principally political hegemony or territorial acquisition by one state power or empire over another was widely practiced in both the East and the West. What distinguishes its new strain, which first operated in Southeast Asia (or the East Indies) under the Dutch from the seventeenth century, then in India under the English and the French during the eighteenth century, and finally in China under several western European powers by the nineteenth century, was the different rationale and the innovative institutions that guided this instrument of power. The institutions grew out of what many European historians have called the "general crisis of the seventeenth century," during which major directional shifts took place in European political, religious, and ideological developments, and resulted in new forms of nation building and political legitimacy, and of a new multistate international order in Europe. In their effort to acquire new resources from, and new markets in, the Americas, the East Indies and India, several European powers took turns to form new transoceanic empires with the primary goal of maximizing their economic gains.

Thus, in around 1600, when both the Dutch and the English initiated a new type of organization in the form of privately capitalized trading companies to launch trade in Asia, these commercial ventures quickly transformed themselves into imperialistic agents of state power. Licensed by their respective states, the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) and the English East India Company (EIC) made use of their ships' superior navigational technology and greater firepower to dominate specific shipping lanes and trading ports and to demand exclusive trading rights from local chieftains. From these footholds along the coast and with Batavia in Java as its main port, the Dutch VOC expanded into the interior, first to set up plantations, and then to secure markets. In India, the English EIC took advantage of a declining Mughal Empire by the early eighteenth century to establish similar footholds and trading privileges in the Calcutta and Madras regions. It soon found itself fighting a war with the regional leader of Bengali authorities in Calcutta, the latter having received support from a rival trading company, the French Compagnie des Indies. Two successive battle victories against the Bengali in Plassey and the French in Pondicherry followed in 1757 and 1760. Like the Dutch VOC in the East Indies, the English EIC had formed its imperial arm, and kept on expanding on the Indian sub-continent until the entire country was incorporated into a formal part of the British Empire a century later, in 1857. By then, the EIC had already ceased to exist.

Impact on China

Meanwhile, the trading activities of the English EIC had extended to China. But unlike the Mughal Empire of the eighteenth century, Qing China remained strong and united. Under the reigns of the Kangxi (r. 16621722) and the Qianlong (r. 17351796) emperors, the Chinese economy and territorial expansion as well as cultural refinements reached their apogee, although several symptoms of decline began to emerge by Qianlong's later years. Under a new set of regulations promulgated by the Chinese government in 1760 that came to be known as the "Canton System," all of the rules of engagements, including trade with all the Europeans, as well as the Americans who came after their War of Independence, were conducted on Chinese terms. And the Chinese authorities were unsparingly harsh in restricting all foreign trade to the port of Canton (since renamed Guangzhou), in limiting access of these foreign traders to a small number of specially licensed Chinese merchants who alone could trade with them, and who, when needed, would carry their petitions to the attention of Chinese officials. Some of the petitions involved European complaints about seemingly unjust punishments meted out to their sailors who had committed infractions under a Chinese legal system that was so different from their own. But various efforts by the English EIC and the government to negotiate for a more equitable relationship, culminating in the dispatch of Lord George Macartney as King George III's emissary to China in 17921793, did not affect any change. Lord Macartney arrived at Qianlong's court on the occasion of the emperor's eightieth birthday; he was treated as the head of a tribute-bearing mission, and Qianlong's reply praised the English king for his solicitations but firmly rejected all his requests for less restrictive trade or more direct communication.

The Chinese had made their response out of ignorance of how their world and the Western world were becoming more and more interconnected through rapid political, economic, and technological changes. Since the Canton system was put in place in China in the mid-eighteenth century, the English had begun an industrial revolution that allowed them to greatly increase their capability to produce more manufactured goods at far lesser costs. This in turn led them to try secure more raw materials and more markets to sell their finished products, and to the extent they were successful in these efforts, the nation reaped the benefit of greater wealth and stronger military power. Moreover, England's advances in military technology only made the Chinese unimproved military more and more obsolete. It was just a matter of time before the English felt that they had sufficient military logistical support to engage China in a war off China's own doorstep.

That came in 1839. The English, having chafed at unbalanced trade for many decades during which the Chinese had much to sell but would buy very little in return, had been importing larger and larger quantities of illegal opium until the trade imbalance switched against the Chinese side. After a court decision to strictly enforce the ban and an order then went out forcing all foreign merchants in Canton to surrender all opium still in their possession, the English official representative soon escalated the confrontation into a military conflict. The Opium War (or Anglo-Chinese War) ensued, and with their inevitable defeat the Chinese had no choice but to sign the Treaty of Nanjing with the English in 1842. This became the first of several treaties between China and the Western powers over the course of the next hundred years, for there would be other conflicts, more defeats, and further concessions. The series set up a new "treaty port" structure, providing territorial concessions and administrative autonomy for foreign settlements in specific treaty port cities like Shanghai. Other areas would be ceded (Hong Kong) or leased (Hong Kong's extension, the New Territories), while all Western imports could land on any treaty portby the 1890s, there would be almost one hundred of them along the coast and on interior riverbanksand at nominally low customs duties the rates of which the Chinese government could not raise. All Western residents in China, including Christian missionaries, were also granted extraterritoriality so that they would not be subject to Chinese laws. By thus giving away these and other rights, China from the mid-nineteenth century on no longer exercised full sovereign powers. But unlike India or the East Indies, it did not become a colony. Indeed, by the late nineteenth century, increasing rivalry among the major Western powers meant that it was in their interest to maintain the survival of the weakened Manchu regime in Beijing so that each one could turn China into a part of its own informal empire in East Asia.

Varieties of Imperialism in the Twentieth Century

The onset of a new century, the twentieth century, seems to have ushered in new sets of meanings and purposes for empire and imperialism in general. If markets had been their principal purpose from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, national security and the balance of power among nations, between alliances, or in a region of the world appeared to be taking over as one area of primary concern. Certainly the so-called scramble for Africa that divided that continent up among Germany, France, and Britain at the end of the nineteenth century was one such evidence. In East Asia, along China's seacoast, a similar "scramble" for new territorial possessions by the major powers took place soon after the surprise naval victory of Japan over China in 1895. The Japanese justification was to restore the strategic balance of the various powers in China. And in 1899, when the United States signed the peace treaty with Spain and acquired the Philippines, there was indeed some consideration to use the Philippines to ensure America's access to the China market. But the overriding concern was a geopolitical one that sought to allow the United States, as an emergent Pacific power, to play a role in the re-balancing among the powers for the East Asian region. As a nation founded on republican principles, the United States took on colonies with a great deal of ambivalence even as the appeal to national security gave it cover. And it would often criticize European imperialism for its greed and oppression, but when it came to its turn in China and elsewhere, America would participate equally.

Probably the country that used national security to the extreme to justify the use of imperialism was Japan. Unlike those nineteenth-century Chinese political and intellectual leaders who refused to accept that the West had overtaken them technologically and economically and so never made fundamental reforms to confront the Western challenge, Japan quickly, during the 1870s and 1880s, transformed itself from a secluded, traditional society into a modernizing one by borrowing systematically from the West. Then when it fought a war against China in 18941895 and won, it did so to replace China's dominance over Korea with its own. From a geopolitical perspective, Japan was concerned that Korea might be turned into "a dagger" pointing at Japan's own backside by imperialistic neighbors like Russia. By 1910, it annexed Korea into its own empire. Japan continued to use the same rationale of strategic needs when it expanded into Manchuria and North China. Even when there were self-evident economic interests, as in the case of the mineral-rich Manchuria, those interests would be explained away in strategic termsas needed resources for a country already so small and so deficient in strategic materials. Then when a rising tide of nationalism occurred in China, Korea, India, and elsewhere in Asia by the beginning years of the twentieth century, Japan tried to soften these new forces against its imperialism by preaching the ideal of a Japan-led pan-Asian movement to confront Western imperialism. When that failed to generate much support, it briefly accepted a policy of restraint during the 1920s before economic failures at home allowed its military leaders to resume its military expansion in the 1930s. This time the slogan was a Japan-led "Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere." But like its promise of liberation and self-independence to the nationalist leaders in the colonial Dutch East Indies, Malaya, the Philippines, and elsewhere, the Japanese army not only failed to live up to these pledges, it also left behind a trail of great brutality toward fellow Asians. Sixty years after its fall, hostility and distrust toward Japan still persists in all the countries that once formed a part of the empire. This short Japanese experiment shows the pitfalls and costs of empires. Its costs ran higher than whatever returns it brought back. And it did not provide the national security that was its raison d'etre; instead, when Japan surrendered to the Allied forces in 1945 and stopped this experiment, the country was in total ruins.

During the twentieth century, the common person's rising awareness of political and economic exploitations of all formsof race, gender, class, or power relationshipsaffected both the form and substance of empires and imperialism, as did the many mass movements involving revolutionary struggles between democracy and totalitarianism. All empires that exercise direct control over vast areas and various people from one metropolis and by a single person or a small group of individuals lost their moral high ground and were forced to break up or modify their form. This is certainly true of the British, Russian, Dutch and many other empires. Cultural studies, such as Edward W. Said's Orientalism, (1978) also warned of the danger of intellectual and cultural imperialism in one's own understanding or assessment of empires from other cultures. Yet all this has not eliminated the existence of imperialist tendencies and views. Indeed, with increasingly rapid advances in technology at the turn of the twenty-first century, especially those involving communication of all forms, the world has been turned into a veritable global village. And since the village is made up of many very unequal parts, the shorter distances and the greater stratifications allow for some countries to exercise imperialism even more easily.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, this has given rise to such new terms and concepts as soft power and hard power. Older terms, such as informal empire, have also taken on new meaning. In this respect, the United States with its unchallenged military might and a national economy considerably larger than any other nation's becomes a primary example. No longer does a powerful nation like the United States need a formal empire like the British Empire of a century ago. Instead, America has unrivaled "hard power" in its military bases and command posts in various parts of the world, including one in East Asia, as well as various forms of "soft power" in economic and cultural dominance that cast tremendous influence over many sovereign nations, from creating alliances to making them a part of its informal empire. In economics, American soft power domination is not just manifested in big transnational corporations or international finance, but also in corporate culture and in setting the standard for the operational systems in computer technology, and in many other areas of research and development for modern industry. In the cultural areas, they range from popular music, videos, and films to youth fashions, icons, and fast food. To differing degrees, these various forms of contemporary American imperialism have become a part of daily existence in all the nations of East Asiafrom Japan and South Korea, which are staunch allies of the United States and accept American military leadership and welcome its influences in the economic and cultural spheres, to China, which is weary of American political and cultural influences but readily accepts its economic support and counsel.

Imperialism Reconsidered

We still lack a historical perspective from which to make a judgment on these contemporary forms of American imperialism. On the other hand, there is some general understanding on the nature of empire and imperialism as they were practiced in the recent past. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the European transoceanic empires that voyaged to Asia, first the Portuguese and the Dutch and then the British, appear to have contributed to the expansion of international trade and the flow of capital, while the Asian ones remained land-bound. From the late eighteenth century on, control over the market took over as the dominant goal, and the empires of modern Europe, led by the British, rode roughshod over all the Asian powers in demanding territory, capital, and material resources, and in unfair trade practices so that Western imperialism became a tool for political subjugation and economic exploitation, designed to maximize the surplus value produced by those under its control. Colonial rule, as in India and parts of urban China, also led to cultural dependency.

However, not all imperialistic imports were bad. Western science and technology, education, modern industry, and political and social organization and theories promoted reforms and modernization in Asia. They also brought in investment and modern management. Indeed, among many Western liberal economists from Adam Smith onward, there is a differentthough not contradictoryassessment that European imperialists' demands for preferential treatment distorted the free market forces so that in the long run, their use of imperialism represented a coercive integration of the world economy that would not benefit their own economy, while their investments in Asia as well as their expenses in defending their Asian empires became added burdens that in the end produced negative returns.

See also Anticolonialism: Southeast Asia ; Colonialism: Southeast Asia ; Occidentalism ; Orientalism ; Westernization: Southeast Asia .


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