Opinion: Why was China never conquered by the British?

MICHAEL PETHOVAN– The way I always understood it, Great Britain never conquered China in the same way as India for a number of reasons.

1. Unlike India, which was made up of squabbling randoms, China was a unified empire which could have mobilized a large army against any invasion force. A favorite tactic of the British was to play on per-existing internal divisions, from Ireland to the North American tribes to India. This would not have worked with China, and the British didn’t see an invasion as worth it if there were easier pickings elsewhere.

Partly because of this, China was for a long time considered too strong militarily to invade anyway. However, the Opium Wars dispelled this notion.

2. China’s main value to the British was as a market and a source of goods. The main goal of the British Empire in most of its actions was not to gain territory, although there were exceptions, like Australia. Its main goal as a capitalist behemoth was to secure supplies and markets for its industry. China was the market for opium and other goods as well as the supply for goods like silk and porcelain, which was in high demand in the emerging British middle class. Not only was an invasion unnecessary from this standpoint, but it would have disrupted the market forces.

3. There were other empires besides Britain which were interested in China by the 19th century. China was situated exactly between British, Russian, and (by 1900) Japanese interests. Additionally, the French were involved in Indochina (southeast Asia) as well. While Britain, Russia, and Japan could establish “spheres of influence” within China (which mostly meant control of trade), any full-scale invasion by Britain would have been seen as upsetting the balance of power, and Britain would soon find itself at war with Russia, Japan, and possibly France as well as fighting Chinese forces, which although badly equipped, would have had a numbers and home-territory advantage.

There are other reasons as well, but these three illustrate why an invasion of China was impractical at best for the British Empire, and in fact could have seriously damaged them.

And again, the primary purpose of the British Empire was not territory, but profit. After the Second Opium War, why did the British not move beyond Hong Kong? They could have easily demanded more from China, but didn’t. They received Hong Kong as a territory, and exclusive trading rights in Guangzhou and Shanghai. Hong Kong was practical as a force to keep an eye on potential Chinese unrest against them, as a haven for British tradesmen, and as a naval base in the region, but not really valuable as Chinese territory per se.

(Michael Pothoven studied History & Pre-Law at University of South Florida)

(The article originally appeared in the Quora; The views expressed by the author are his own do not necessarily reflect PKonweb’s editorial policy)

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