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European Trade With China and Southeast Asia

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

China and Southeast Asia

With the exception of Siam (present-day Thailand), nearly all the islands and kingdoms of Southeast Asia were under European sway by the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Most of the colonization took place after 1870. Thanks to the strength and military skill of Indian troops, Britain took over Burma and Singapore. Singapore was important for the protection of British shipping lanes, and Burma was ruled by an ambitious dynasty that threatened British supremacy in the region.

Britain’s power base in India enabled it to open up trade with Manchu (Qing) China, which had maintained a highly favorable trade balance with Britain up to this time, for two reasons. First, the Chinese were not interested in acquiring Western goods, insisting instead on being paid in silver. Second, the Chinese did not desire any cultural exchange with the West; from the Chinese point of view, exposure to Western culture and ideas meant contamination. This attitude meant that only certain Chinese ports were open to Western traders, and the behavior of those who went ashore was strictly regulated.

Westerners traded with China despite the unfavorable financial balance, because China provided goods they could not purchase elsewhere. Tea was the favorite beverage in Britain, and China was also the source of porcelain, ceramics, silks, and other luxury goods. Britain and other Western nations pressured China to relax its restrictive policies, but to no avail—until the British hit on the effective but morally bankrupt notion of offering opium, cultivated in British India, as payment for Chinese goods.

The nineteenth century was an era of abysmal medical ignorance, and both Western and Eastern doctors prescribed opium as a painkiller. However, society was well aware that opium was a hallucinogenic, used illegitimately (not illegally in all countries) as what is today called a “recreational” drug. The Chinese had used opium for medicinal purposes for centuries, but placed a ban on its purchase or use without a doctor’s prescription. However, China was not without its drug-dealers and opium addicts. The sudden rise in the availability of opium allowed the Chinese underworld excellent opportunities for profit, and the desirability of the opium caused a 180-degree shift in the trade balance between China and Britain.

The Manchus banned the importation of the drug. This provoked the British warships to fire on China, inaugurating the First Opium War in 1840. By 1842 the Chinese, unable to match the British military power, conceded defeat and accepted British demands to resume the importation of opium and to sign new treaties. Historians refer to these agreements as “unequal treaties” because they were all but signed at gunpoint, with one side dictating all the terms. The treaties specified that the Chinese would open several ports for trade; that China would provide equal access and privileges to all Western trading partners; and that foreigners, if accused of any crimes in China, would be tried by their own nations rather than in Chinese courts—a proceeding known as “extraterritoriality.” The First Opium War effectively ended China’s reign as a world power until after World War II.

Britain and France formed an alliance and won further concessions from the Manchus in the Second Opium War, fought from 1856 to 1860. At the same time, Russia took the opportunity to seize a large expanse of Siberian territory from China. After two more wars, one with France and one with Japan, China was cornered. The West forced the Qing government to adopt a free trade policy. Although the Qing emperor remained on the throne, he had little authority over events. Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia established spheres of influence over most of China.

The Dutch won a power struggle on the island of Java in 1830 and gained huge profits by purchasing Javanese crops (sugar, coffee, and tea) very cheaply and selling them in Europe at much higher prices.

France was also active in Southeast Asia. In 1858–1859 the French invaded Vietnam and established a colony despite resistance from both Vietnam and China. By 1884, France had established protectorates in Annan and Tonkin; three years later they had taken over Cambodia. The French administered the area as the Union of Indochina. It was valuable for its natural resource of rubber, timber, and rice.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

World Trade and Empires in Europe Practice Test

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