Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Gunboat Diplomacy and 19th Century Western Imperialism in Asia

Perry's Squadron during his Second Japan Visit
"Political Power flows out from the barrel of gun"
- Mao Zedong

The use of gunboat diplomacy in the 19th century in Asia expanded the dominion of Western Empires. In that period, the charm of Asia’s wealth continued to attract Western attention. Under the guise of civilization, warships of Western powers anchored in different Asian ports, terrifying governments and bending them to their will. This tactic changed histories and policies that continued to be felt to this day.

Basic Concept

Gunboat diplomacy paralleled a school bully hitting on vulnerable children. By use of intimidation and display of might, it subdued countries to other’s will.

James Cable, who wrote the book Gunboat Diplomacy, defined it as:

"the use or threat of limited naval force, otherwise than as an act of war, in order to secure advantage, or to avert loss, either in the furtherance of an international dispute or else against foreign nationals within the territory or the jurisdiction of their own state."

Gunboat diplomacy used small squad of warships sailing into a strategic area and using it as a leverage for negotiations. In Asia during the 19th century, western navies sent their most modern warship into these expeditions to intimidate technologically backward countries with powerful guns and ships with large sails, bellowing chimneys, and revolving side wheels. This display and its positioning, accompanied by strong personalities of negotiators, petrified many Asian countries. The fear turned eventually to “furtherance” for Western powers. “Furtherance” that meant unequal treaties or later on annexation.

Cable’s Aspects of Gunboat Diplomacy

Cable also wrote the underlining principles of a gunboat diplomacy (summarized in Wikipedia). First came the definitive force that underlined the aims the use of gunboat diplomacy as to break a prevailing condition in a country, ranging from discrimination, violence against foreigners, or even war.

Secondly came the purposeful force, which called upon the use of limited naval force to demand or to convince a change in government's attitude and policy.

Thirdly was the Catalytic Force, or the phase where the executioner of the gunboat diplomacy provided options through negotiations to the victim country aiming to change the prevailing situation.

Lastly was the Expressive Force which was simply the use of naval power to force a government to change its policies. 

Reasons for the Use of Gunboat Diplomacy

Gunboat diplomacy allowed Western countries to expand their Empires without a conquest of large armies and navies. It matched the change in strategy of the West’s imperial expansion. It took advantage of the existing situations for a reason and changing technology in warfare.

The 19th century saw a resurgence in imperialism. Europe scrambled for Africa and Asia. But such expansion cost a lot of resources and men to keep. By the time they devoured Asia, their military spread thinly across the globe and thus it called for a change in strategy. Instead of gaining outright colonies with large armies and expeditions, they began to use unequal treaties to establish protectorates and spheres of influence that required lesser men but still allowed them to control over governments and resources of countries. If the country rebelled, gunboats crashed them. Only if the circumstances came that they decide to annex a country.

But in order to obtain unequal treaties, Western power needed an excuse to enter the scene; and, coming as civilization agents provided it. For centuries, Asians and Westerners mutually viewed each other as aliens and barbarians. Asians feared Westerners for their religion and colonization and protected themselves through isolation. But they saw a surge in numbers of Europeans and Americans coming because of transportation advancements. They continued to resist and treated foreigners with hostility. This hostility gave justification to Western powers to introduce their sophisticated and civilize manners thru gunboat diplomacy.

Gunboat diplomacy allowed the West to exact unequal treaties in favor to them from Asian countries. Eventually, more unequal treaties followed until some countries fell to either become protectorates and spheres of influence or completely a dominion of Western power.


Western powers conducted gunboat diplomacy time and again with devastating efficiency. China experienced the might of the British navy in a gunboat diplomacy aimed in ending the Opium War. The Japanese followed with the same coming from the Americans in an effort to end its policy of isolation. While the Siam suffered from the French to end a war over territorial dispute.


Chinese Commissioner Lin Zexu arrived in Canton in 1839 with the task of ending the scourge of opium. Opium devastated the society and economy of China and Peking wanted to cease it. Britain, however, ran the opium trade from the only port open to foreigners – Canton. The crackdown of Lin, however, led to diplomatic tensions that climaxed in December 1839 when China cut off trade relations with Great Britain. Britain responded by declaring war on China, starting the Opium War that lasted until 1842.
British warships destroying Chinese junks in Anson Bay during the Opium War
British warships destroying Chinese junks
in Anson Bay during the Opium War
Britain faced huge disadvantage in numbers and resources against the vast Empire of China, having a land area 40 times that of Great Britain. They only had their steamboats and better weaponry as an advantage, which they used efficiently. With their gunboats, the Royal Navy blockaded and bombarded vital ports of China in an effort to bring the Chinese in the negotiating table. It took years before Britain finally subdued China with their bombardments and raids, leading to the signing of the Treaty of Nanking/Nanjing.

The unequal Treaty of Nanking secured Britain's privileges in China. It led to the opening of 4 more additional ports to foreign trade, dismantling of the Cohong and Canton System and providing of extraterritorial rights that gave British citizens immunity from trials from local courts and laws.  It conferred the status of most favored country to Britain that automatically gave them all benefits that the Chinese would give to other nationalities. It ceded to Britain the Island of Hong Kong and allowed pockets of British garrison to remain in some areas of China. It made China pay a huge sum indemnity for damages and expenses the British incurred from 1839. In addition, It forced the Chinese to treat Britain as an equal in diplomatic negotiations and letters rather than another tributary state or a barbarian kingdom. Britain earned fear as well as anger from the Chinese because of the humiliation they inflicted and the unequal terms they imposed.


Japan shared China’s experience in gunboat diplomacy in 1853 and 1854. For two centuries, Tokugawa Japan isolated itself from the rest of the world except from the Dutch and their enclave in Dejima Island in Nagasaki. The Americans saw Japan as strategic for its China trade and Asian adventures. So in 1852, Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed to Japan to open its doors to Americans.
Perry meeting with Japanese diplomats
Perry meeting with Japanese diplomats
In July 1853, the Japanese spotted Perry’s “Black Ships” anchoring in Uraga Bay, more than twenty miles south of the Shogunate capital of Edo. They tried to urge the Commodore to proceed to Nagasaki to no avail. They faced a tough and a strong personality in Perry. In fear of his powerful ships proceeding to Edo or doing worse, they decided to agree to talk to him in the bay. They received Perry and a letter from the US President urging them to open their doors to foreigners. They then got a notification from the Commodore that he would return in the following year for the reply, which he did in February 1854. 

When Perry returned, the Japanese felt ever more uncomfortable as Perry anchored nearer to Edo, in a spot close to Kangawa (modern day Yokohama). They negotiated furiously for Perry to agree to talk near the coast of Kanagawa instead of Edo. And so by March, the two side talked for an agreement that would end Japan’s isolation and open its doors to Americans. It concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa.

The Treaty of Kanagawa secured the opening of some ports for American resupply. It secured the residency of a consul in one of the ports – Shimoda. It secured the welfare of American sailors and ships that would be wrecked or castaway to Japanese shores. The Treaty of Kanagawa signaled the coming of Europeans to negotiate the same terms. Few years later, in 1858, the Americans secured the Harris Treaty that gave the American extraterritoriality and right to trade in several ports of Japan. Other countries followed suit. The giving of extraterritoriality made much of the Treaties that followed the Harris as unequal. But Japan conceded to keep peace and hope to maintain its independence peacefully.


The Southeast Asian kingdom of Thailand or back then Siam also had its share of gunboat diplomacy by a western power. In 1893, Siam and France had territorial dispute over the lands of modern-day Laos. The French wanted to expand their Indochinese colony while Siam wanted to maintain its tributaries in the same area. The dispute turned violent and armed clashes between the two sides erupted to a war.
Two French warships during the Paknam Incident
Two French warships during the Paknam Incident
France had done gunboat diplomacy in Indochina and China and they did the same to Siam. On July 13, 1893, two French warships sailed to Paknam in the mouth of the Menam Chao Phraya. It fought against the nearby Chulachomklao Fort, resulting to casualties and damages in both sides. Although facing strong resistance, the two French warships accomplished to sail into the river and anchor in the French legation in the Siamese capital of Bangkok. They trained their guns towards the Grand Palace itself, threatening the heart of the country.

The Siamese government received the demands of the French on July 20. They faced the choice accepting the surrender of lands along the Mekong River, the release captured French officers from the border clashes, and the payment of a huge indemnity or face a French blockade or bombardment. With French artillery pointed at the Grand Palace, they consented to accept all terms except the surrender of lands in the Mekong River. It did not satisfy the French.

The French then commenced the blockade of Bangkok the only major port of Siam at that time. Although lesser than a bombardment of the Grand Palace, it still devastated commerce and the economy. Siam remained recalcitrant for few weeks until finally it gave in. Negotiations over a treaty began.

On October 3, 1893, the two belligerents signed an agreement that mandated Siam to withdraw its forces east of the Mekong and establishing a 25 km. demilitarized zone in the western bank of the river. Siam lost its traditional tributaries and parts of modern day Cambodia. In addition, it had to pay indemnities to the French. As a result, Siam was reduced to its present borders.


Gunboat diplomacy shook many countries. It created an initial shock and fear followed by reflection and confusion, in a sense of what direction to take. Many countries took different paths and ended with different results.

China took the path of resistance. They neglectfully implemented the articles of the Treaty of Nanking. Attacks on British subjects and other foreigners persisted and in 1856, a coalition of British and French forces subjugated once again China in a Second Opium War, ending in further singing of unequal treaties. The Qing Dynasty and the Chinese continued to view westerners as barbarians, leading to further humiliation of China. In the last decade of the 19th century, Peking drafted a massive modernization program to strengthen the country, but the conservatives maneuvered to cease it, seeing foreign technologies and ways as devil’s works. In the end, the Chinese people felt sick of the embarrassments they got from failed government policies and toppled the imperial government in 1911. China remained chaotic until 1949 with the foundation of the People’s Republic China, and to this day they continue to remember the humiliation that gunboat diplomacy inflicted to them in 19th century.

Japan traversed a better path. Shock over the unequal treaties and foreign gunboats in their shores led to division between those who saw opening the country as a practical means to survive and those who argued for resistance and rallied under the banner of jo-i (Expel the Barbarians). In end, the Tokugawa Shogunate, incapable to resist against modern weapons, conceded time and again to foreign demands, to which their opponents used to call for their ouster. And in 1868, civil war erupted between the Shogunate and the Imperialist, ending with the fall of the Tokugawa and the restoration of imperial rule. The leaders of the restoration, although firstly believed in jo-i, suddenly continued the opening of Japan and started the modernization of the country. By the end of the century, Japan poised to be an imperial power and earned respect in 1905 when they inflicted a defeat against Russia.

King Chulalongkorn
King Chulalongkorn
Siam’s Paknam Incident threatened the efforts of Siamese monarchs for decades. From King Mongkut to his son and successor Chulalongkorn, they led their countries modernization and adoption of western government systems to avoid becoming a colony. After the Paknam Incident, Chulalongkorn feared for his Kingdom’s future and felt the need to secure the European powers’ recognition of Siam’s independence and territorial integrity. He choose the path of diplomacy and went on a European tour in 1897 to achieve it, becoming the first Siamese king to do so. Although he tried his best through diplomacy to get back the lost territories, he failed; but as a consolation, he gained Europe’s recognition of Siam’s independence, making his kingdom the only country in Southeast Asia to avoid a colonial chapter in its history.   

Gunboat diplomacy allowed western powers to exact unequal treaties, it flared up discontent on many Asian countries. The notion of invincibility of foreigners from local laws, loss of territories, or sudden changes in policies led for the people to question their governments and view foreigners as “devil” and barbarians. Many attacked foreigners as a result that led western powers to retaliate with another gunboat diplomacy and another unequal treaty, a cycle that ultimately led to a colonial status, which only few manage to avoid. The incapability of governments to resist the west undermined them in the view of their people, usually leading up to their downfall, as in the case of China and Japan.

But gunboat diplomacy had its positive effects in some cases, such as Siam and Japan. Experiencing gunboat diplomacy led to reflection on the weakness of their country, not just in political will but technologically. Modern weapons made gunboat diplomacy by the west effective and the only way to resist it was to become modern as well. As a result, modernization became a focus. Their success only determined by how willing and strong their leaders to break conservative conception and accept practicality. In the case of Siam and Japan.

Gunboat diplomacy also had relations with the rise of nationalism. Nationalism meant to defend a people’s interest, welfare, and independence from foreigners. Thus, with humiliation inflicted by gunboat diplomacy, nationalism spread, leading them either to resistance or to modernize be strong to defend themselves from foreign incursions.  

Summing Up

Gunboat diplomacy served as an instrument of the west to expand their influence and colonial empires under the guise of spreading civilization. They used small naval squadrons placed in strategic positions and used fear as weapons of intimidation to change a prevailing situation and to subdue Asian countries to submit to their unequal terms. China, Japan, and Siam had their own experience resulting to semi-colonial status or lose of territories.

The result of the tactic varied per every Asian country. But most develop an idea of nationalism to defend themselves either by fighting or by reforming to modernize. By fighting proved to be more chaotic than reforming. But even with reforms came challenges from within, from conservatives and traditionalist, or without, if a western power decided to take a territory. In the end, a country’s fate in managing the aftermath of a gunboat diplomacy reside on its leadership. Luckily for some, they had the right leaders but for others, they must endure for decades the hardship of being a dominion of a western power.

Today, gunboat diplomacy maintained its potency in a modern form. Instead of battleships, major powers exercised their military influence through the use of aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and destroyers armed with guided missiles. The United States used these to protect its interest. China learned from its past to execute its very own gunboat diplomacy, using its coast guard and navy to intimidate its neighbors and to take over the resource rich South China Sea and to protect their nine dash line.

Gunboat diplomacy remains an instrument in Asian as well as global politics. Its form and instrument changes with time but its objective of intimidating a country to further an interest remained the same. Gunboat diplomacy would and will continue to play a role in politics as long as there are waters to sail on.

See also:

Fairbank, John King. China: A New History. London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Hogan, Albert. Pacific Blockade. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908.

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