Since the dawn of civilization, two countries dominated the East Asian landscape namely China and Japan. China considered itself to be the ‘Middle Kingdom’ to whom all others states required to pay obeisance. Japan too had a proud lineage of warrior class who were fiercely proud of their independence. Through the ages, China became inward looking, content with its own prowess and achievements in science and technology little realizing that the winds of change were blowing in a direction different from the one which they had charted for themselves.
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These winds of change commenced with the Reformation in Europe in the 16th century in which the European powers sailed far and wide and set up colonies the world over. By the 18th century, the European powers and the United States had covered most parts of the world and the stage was set for a period of tumultuous relations in East Asia. This essay attempts to explain the geopolitical power play that ensued during the period 1750-1921 A.D in East Asia, focusing on the affairs of Japan and China in relation to the Western Powers.
During the 18th century, the internal conditions of Japan and China were similar but varied in the degree of intensity. In both countries, the powers of the respective Emperors were waning. In China, the Qing Dynasty had little control over vast swathes of the country and independent warlords existed. In Japan, the Tokugawa Shogunate was more dominant and the Emperor had limited powers. When the European traders started arriving on the East Asian coasts, the Chinese not realizing the future danger allowed them to trade thinking them to be harmless. The Japanese on the other hand rightly understood the future danger from the Europeans and banned any trade with the West.
Thus in the initial period, while the weaknesses of China were exposed to the Europeans who slowly but slowly gained influence and territory over Chinese lands, Japan was insulated from such danger through its policy of self imposed isolation. According to Richards “By the end of the century, European states had marked out most of China into “spheres of influence”, giving them exclusive trading rights in their own sphere”(6). When the Chinese resisted the British trade in Opium, it lead to the Opium wars in which the Chinese were defeated and had to sign the treaty of Nanking in 1842. “The treaty gave Hong Kong to the British and opened new ports to British trade”(Feige & Miron, 4).
Japan, with a smaller land mass, and an isolationist policy remained intact but that was soon to change. “ From the 1780s, when fear of the western threat for the first time since the 1640s recurred, Japan began wide-ranging though limited political study of the west”(Cullen 4). “In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry aboard the battleship Mississippi arrived in Uraga, Edo Bay, demanding the opening of trade”(Kim, 4). The symbolism of the incident was not lost on the Japanese who then decided to change their strategy and align more closely with the West. The next year Japan signed a Treaty of Peace and Amity with the Unites States and then with other Western powers.
The Japanese also realized the need for the country to unite under one head and the Tokugawa Shogunate under Shogun Yoshinobu handed over powers to Emperor Meiji on November 9, 1867. “The Meiji period (1868-1912) brought about the rapid modernization of Japanese economic, political, and social institutions, which resulted in Japan’s attaining the status of the leading country in Asia. and a world economic and political power” (Gordon, 1). Western knowledge, philosophy and advancement in technology soon reached the shores of Japan. According to Sumikawa, “Japan introduced its first constitution in 1889, based on the European style”(2).
This was initiated by the Emperor who persevered to abolish Japanese feudal system and bring in modern precepts of governance. No such change ensued in China which was grievously divided amongst themselves and the western colonialists. The Japanese introduced nationwide conscription and western training to bolster the Japanese Armed Forces. This modernization allowed the Japanese to further change their strategy to a proactive one in which they envisaged maintaining a forward line in Korea, Manchuria and Russia leading to the Sino-Japanese war of 1894 and the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. In both cases Japan gained victory.
China on the other hand continued to flounder amongst competing national interests of the Imperial powers to which even Japan joined in with its share of Chinese lands in Manchuria. Chinese resistance in the form of the ‘Boxers rebellion’ set the stage for uniting the Chinese people against European powers.
However it was an event of gigantic proportion which actually diverted the attention of the colonial powers from China – World War I. In the ensuing period, Russia being the nearest influential neighbor saw an opportunity to export the Russian revolution southward.
Despite the American support to the Kuomintang under Dr Sun Yat Sen, it was the Russian support for the formation of the Communist Party of China in 1921 which heralded a new chapter leading to the inevitable ultimate unification of China in the 20th century. In the final analysis it can be said that in the period 1750-1921 A.D, it was the Japanese who proved to be more nimble footed in understanding the geopolitical equations in relation to the Western powers and gainfully leveraging it to their advantage.
Cullen LM.” A History of Japan, 1582-1941: Internal and External Worlds” 2008. Web.
Feige, Chris & Miron, Jeffrey A. 2005. “The Opium Wars, Opium Legalization, and Opium Consumption in China”. Web.
Gordon, Bill. 2000. “Tokugawa Period’s Influence on Meiji Restoration”. Web.
Kim, Kyu Hun. “The Defense of the Realm: Preliminary Observations on the Japanese Discourse on Coastal Defense in 19th Century”. Web.
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Richards, James O. 2004. “The Shaping of the “Second Europe” by Revolutions, 1750 – 1914”. Web.
Sumikawa, Shunsuke. 1999. “The Meiji Restoration: Roots of Modern Japan”. Web.