USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

China and the World Powers from 1848 to 1911

If during the second half of the nineteenth century the Europeans became the world’s predators, China, the most populous state in the world (429 million people by 1850), became the ultimate prey, and the carcass of the Qing Dynasty was big enough for many feeders. The English, French, Americans, Germans, and Italians all wanted their piece of China’s coast and the so-called “China-trade.” Two other powers, Russia and Japan, wanted a larger chunk of China’s mainland for natural resources and access to ports. The last two decades of the nineteenth century saw one humiliation for the Chinese after another. European powers used their navies to gain valuable “spheres of influence” in China. Negotiations between China and these governments more closely resembled competition between the powers themselves, using imperial China as a leveraging partner. The clearest example of this can be seen between Russia and Japan. Russia, whose empire stretched from Europe to the Pacific Ocean, was in the process of completing its trans-Siberian railroad, which, if it could gain a chunk of northern Manchuria from China, would make the project much simpler and faster to finish. In addition, the main Russian port on the Pacific was the city of Vladivostok, a glorious spot, the only negative of which (and this is a big negative for a port) was that it lay frozen-in for months during the winter. The Russians, therefore, had their eyes on two principles goals that could be gained from China: warmer weather ports south of Vladivostok and as much of the Chinese province of Manchuria that they could absorb without causing an international uproar. Both of these goals brought Russia into direct conflict with Japan, which also wanted ports on the continent and as much of the mineral-rich province of Manchuria as possible.

The Boxer Rebellion was the spark that set alight these competing national interests. The Boxers were a group of radicals who took it upon themselves to rise up in defense of the Qing Dynasty in opposition to foreign powers, especially those who occupied areas in the city of Beijing. The Boxers marched on Beijing and put the foreign quarters of the city under siege. The Boxers' actions provided the excuse for the imperial powers to move to secure their own interests against each other. The very survival of China depended not on any inherent strength left in the Qing Dynasty but on the inability of any single foreign power to dominate the others and thus to dominate all of China. The Boxer rebellion and the subsequent military actions of the foreign occupying powers put these powers in increasing conflict with each other. The Russians, for example, used the Boxer crisis as their excuse to occupy all of Manchuria. In 1900, it seemed likely that the Tsarist forces would move south past the Great Wall and into the body of China itself. British and German forces, feeling the pressure from the Russians, arrayed themselves along the Great Wall to try to repulse a Russian advance. By 1902, the continued Russian threat to the north provided the impulse for the British and the Japanese to enter into a formal treaty of mutual support against the Russians. Tensions continued, mostly between Russia and Japan, the players with the most direct territorial interests in Manchuria and the coastal waters of northern China. In February of 1904, the Japanese navy attacked and destroyed Russia’s Pacific fleet. Nicholas II, the Russian Tsar, immediately dispatched his Baltic fleet to make the long journey to the east to support the Russian military cause. Japan’s Admiral Togo intercepted the Russian fleet before it could reach safety in the port of Vladivostok and sank it. On land, the Russians proved equally ill-equipped to deal with the Japanese army, which was now outfitted with the most up-to-date military technology. Russia was routed from Manchuria and lost all claim to coastal China. Japan, though powerful, was not yet prepared to launch an extensive military adventure deep into Asia. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt brokered a peace agreement between Russia and Japan in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1905, cementing Japan’s stunning victory over the largest land empire in the world. A new, powerful nationalist Japan was on the rise. The first part of its empire was now in place, small sections of coastal China and the Korean Peninsula. China, on the other hand, was about to undergo rapid decline and fragmentation. The Qing Dynasty of the Manchus, a dynasty that rose to dramatic heights of wealth and power in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, only to experience a century of steady and humiliating decline, would vanish forever in 1912, setting off a series of revolutions and counter-revolutions that would leave it vulnerable to increased imperial domination.

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