Enduring Legacy Of European Imperialism In China And Its Impact On Contemporary Relations – OpE


The rivalry between European nations and China dates back centuries, and it has been marked by conflict, exploitation, and mutual mistrust. This article will explore the historical roots of this rivalry, its impact on China’s history, and its contemporary implications, including the South China Sea dispute and Tibet. In addition, it will analyze the role of European trade and hypocrisy in shaping this relationship.

Historical Roots of the Rivalry

The rivalry between European nations and China began in the early modern period, when European traders and explorers arrived in China seeking exotic goods such as silk, porcelain, and tea. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach China, in the early 16th century, followed by the Spanish, Dutch, and British. The Portuguese established a trade monopoly in Macau, while the Dutch and British set up trading posts in Taiwan and Canton, respectively.

However, the Chinese authorities were suspicious of foreigners and their strange customs, and they limited their access to Chinese society. They allowed foreign traders to conduct business only in designated ports, such as Canton, and required them to pay tribute to the emperor as a sign of submission. The Europeans, for their part, regarded the Chinese as arrogant and backward, and they sought to expand their influence in China by force if necessary.

In the 18th century, the British emerged as the dominant naval power in the world and began to expand their colonial empire. They sought new markets to sell their goods, and China, with its vast population and potential demand, was a lucrative target. However, the Chinese authorities were not interested in importing British goods, which they regarded as inferior to Chinese products. In response, the British began exporting opium, which was grown in their colonies in India, to China. Opium addiction became rampant in China, and the British gained enormous profits. However, the Chinese government tried to ban the import of opium, leading to a conflict with Britain.

The Opium War and Its Consequences

In 1839, tensions between Britain and China boiled over into the Opium War. Britain was supported by other European powers, such as France, and defeated China easily. The Treaty of Nanjing, signed in 1842, forced China to open its ports to foreign trade, cede Hong Kong to Britain, and pay reparations. This marked the beginning of the decline of China’s power and the rise of European influence in Asia.

The Opium War had significant consequences for China. It was a humiliating defeat that exposed the weaknesses of China’s economy and military. China was forced to open its doors to foreign influence, leading to the influx of foreign goods, ideas, and technology. This had a profound impact on Chinese society, which struggled to adapt to the changes brought about by Westernization. In addition, the treaty system imposed by the European powers led to the loss of Chinese territory, such as Taiwan, and the imposition of unequal treaties that favored the Europeans.

The Opium War also marked the beginning of the so-called “Century of Humiliation” for China, a period of foreign domination and humiliation that lasted until the end of World War II. European powers and Japan carved up China into spheres of influence, extracting resources and exploiting its people. China became a victim of imperialism, and its people suffered under foreign rule.

The Role of European Trade and Hypocrisy

European trade played a significant role in the rivalry between European nations and China. The Europeans sought to profit from China’s vast markets, but they were frustrated by China’s reluctance to trade. The British, in particular, sought to export opium to China as a means of balancing their trade deficit with China. This led to the Opium War and the forced opening of China to foreign trade.

European trade with China was characterized by hypocrisy. The Europeans demanded access to Chinese markets but they were unwilling to grant the same access to Chinese goods in Europe. They imposed tariffs and other barriers to protect their own industries and undermined China’s efforts to modernize its economy. European hypocrisy was epitomized by the so-called “Open Door Policy,” which was proposed by the United States in 1899 and supported by the other Western powers. This policy called for equal access to China’s markets for all nations, but it was really a cover for their own imperialism.

European hypocrisy was also evident in their treatment of Tibet. Tibet was historically an independent state, but it was subject to Chinese suzerainty. In the late 19th century, Britain sought to gain influence in Tibet as part of its rivalry with Russia. It recognized Tibet as a buffer state and signed treaties with the Tibetans that guaranteed their independence. However, in 1904, a British expedition invaded Tibet and forced the Tibetans to sign a treaty recognizing British influence. This was a blatant violation of Tibetan sovereignty and a clear example of European hypocrisy.

South China Sea Dispute

The rivalry between European nations and China has continued into the 21st century, with the South China Sea dispute being one of the most contentious issues. The South China Sea is a strategic waterway that is rich in natural resources and vital for international trade. China claims most of the South China Sea as its territorial waters, based on its historical claims and the “nine-dash line” map, which is not recognized by international law. This has led to tensions with other countries in the region, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia, which also claim parts of the South China Sea.

The South China Sea dispute is not just about territorial claims but also about the balance of power in the region. China’s growing military and economic influence has alarmed other countries, which fear that China is seeking to dominate the region. The United States, which has long been a dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region, has also been involved in the dispute. It has conducted freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to challenge China’s claims and has supported its allies in the region.

The South China Sea dispute is a complex issue that has no easy solution. It involves competing claims, historical grievances, and power politics. China’s assertiveness in the region has raised concerns among its neighbors and the international community, and the United States’ involvement has complicated the situation. It is a reminder of the enduring rivalry between European nations and China and its impact on the region.


The rivalry between European nations and China has a long and complex history, marked by conflict, exploitation, and mutual mistrust. The Opium War and the Century of Humiliation had a profound impact on China’s history and its relations with the West. European trade and hypocrisy played a significant role in shaping this relationship, leading to the forced opening of China’s markets and the loss of its sovereignty. The South China Sea dispute is a contemporary manifestation of this rivalry, highlighting the ongoing struggle for power and influence in the region. The rivalry between European nations and China is a reminder of the enduring legacy of imperialism and its impact on the world.

Muhammad Hamdan is a student of FAST-National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences, Pakistan, pursuing degree of Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering.

Muhammad Hamdan Khan

Muhammad Hamdan Khan is a student of FAST-National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences, Pakistan, pursuing bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering.

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