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Empire and Imperialism

AsiaVarieties Of Imperialism In The Twentieth Century

The onset of a new century, the twentieth century, seems to have ushered in new sets of meanings and purposes for empire and imperialism in general. If markets had been their principal purpose from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, national security and the balance of power among nations, between alliances, or in a region of the world appeared to be taking over as one area of primary concern. Certainly the so-called scramble for Africa that divided that continent up among Germany, France, and Britain at the end of the nineteenth century was one such evidence. In East Asia, along China's seacoast, a similar "scramble" for new territorial possessions by the major powers took place soon after the surprise naval victory of Japan over China in 1895. The Japanese justification was to restore the strategic balance of the various powers in China. And in 1899, when the United States signed the peace treaty with Spain and acquired the Philippines, there was indeed some consideration to use the Philippines to ensure America's access to the China market. But the overriding concern was a geopolitical one that sought to allow the United States, as an emergent Pacific power, to play a role in the re-balancing among the powers for the East Asian region. As a nation founded on republican principles, the United States took on colonies with a great deal of ambivalence even as the appeal to national security gave it cover. And it would often criticize European imperialism for its greed and oppression, but when it came to its turn in China and elsewhere, America would participate equally.

Probably the country that used national security to the extreme to justify the use of imperialism was Japan. Unlike those nineteenth-century Chinese political and intellectual leaders who refused to accept that the West had overtaken them technologically and economically and so never made fundamental reforms to confront the Western challenge, Japan quickly, during the 1870s and 1880s, transformed itself from a secluded, traditional society into a modernizing one by borrowing systematically from the West. Then when it fought a war against China in 1894–1895 and won, it did so to replace China's dominance over Korea with its own. From a geopolitical perspective, Japan was concerned that Korea might be turned into "a dagger" pointing at Japan's own backside by imperialistic neighbors like Russia. By 1910, it annexed Korea into its own empire. Japan continued to use the same rationale of strategic needs when it expanded into Manchuria and North China. Even when there were self-evident economic interests, as in the case of the mineral-rich Manchuria, those interests would be explained away in strategic terms—as needed resources for a country already so small and so deficient in strategic materials. Then when a rising tide of nationalism occurred in China, Korea, India, and elsewhere in Asia by the beginning years of the twentieth century, Japan tried to soften these new forces against its imperialism by preaching the ideal of a Japan-led pan-Asian movement to confront Western imperialism. When that failed to generate much support, it briefly accepted a policy of restraint during the 1920s before economic failures at home allowed its military leaders to resume its military expansion in the 1930s. This time the slogan was a Japan-led "Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere." But like its promise of liberation and self-independence to the nationalist leaders in the colonial Dutch East Indies, Malaya, the Philippines, and elsewhere, the Japanese army not only failed to live up to these pledges, it also left behind a trail of great brutality toward fellow Asians. Sixty years after its fall, hostility and distrust toward Japan still persists in all the countries that once formed a part of the empire. This short Japanese experiment shows the pitfalls and costs of empires. Its costs ran higher than whatever returns it brought back. And it did not provide the national security that was its raison d'etre; instead, when Japan surrendered to the Allied forces in 1945 and stopped this experiment, the country was in total ruins.

During the twentieth century, the common person's rising awareness of political and economic exploitations of all forms—of race, gender, class, or power relationships—affected both the form and substance of empires and imperialism, as did the many mass movements involving revolutionary struggles between democracy and totalitarianism. All empires that exercise direct control over vast areas and various people from one metropolis and by a single person or a small group of individuals lost their moral high ground and were forced to break up or modify their form. This is certainly true of the British, Russian, Dutch and many other empires. Cultural studies, such as Edward W. Said's Orientalism, (1978) also warned of the danger of intellectual and cultural imperialism in one's own understanding or assessment of empires from other cultures. Yet all this has not eliminated the existence of imperialist tendencies and views. Indeed, with increasingly rapid advances in technology at the turn of the twenty-first century, especially those involving communication of all forms, the world has been turned into a veritable global village. And since the village is made up of many very unequal parts, the shorter distances and the greater stratifications allow for some countries to exercise imperialism even more easily.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, this has given rise to such new terms and concepts as soft power and hard power. Older terms, such as informal empire, have also taken on new meaning. In this respect, the United States with its unchallenged military might and a national economy considerably larger than any other nation's becomes a primary example. No longer does a powerful nation like the United States need a formal empire like the British Empire of a century ago. Instead, America has unrivaled "hard power" in its military bases and command posts in various parts of the world, including one in East Asia, as well as various forms of "soft power" in economic and cultural dominance that cast tremendous influence over many sovereign nations, from creating alliances to making them a part of its informal empire. In economics, American soft power domination is not just manifested in big transnational corporations or international finance, but also in corporate culture and in setting the standard for the operational systems in computer technology, and in many other areas of research and development for modern industry. In the cultural areas, they range from popular music, videos, and films to youth fashions, icons, and fast food. To differing degrees, these various forms of contemporary American imperialism have become a part of daily existence in all the nations of East Asia—from Japan and South Korea, which are staunch allies of the United States and accept American military leadership and welcome its influences in the economic and cultural spheres, to China, which is weary of American political and cultural influences but readily accepts its economic support and counsel.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to EphemeralEmpire and Imperialism - Asia - Imperialism And Market, Impact On China, Varieties Of Imperialism In The Twentieth Century, Imperialism Reconsidered