Imperialism in Asia traces its roots back to the late 15th century with a series of voyages that sought a sea passage to India in the hope of establishing direct trade between Europe and Asia in spices. Before 1500 European economies were largely self-sufficient, only supplemented by minor trade with Asia and Africa. Within the next century, however, European and Asian economies were slowly becoming integrated through the rise of new global trade routes; and the early thrust of European political power, commerce, and culture in Asia gave rise to a growing trade in lucrative commodities – a key development in the rise of today’s modern world free market economy.
In the 16th century, the Portuguese broke the monopoly of the Arabs and Italians of trade between Asia and Europe by the discovery of the sea route to India around the Cape of Good Hope. However, with the rise of the rival Dutch East India Company, Portuguese influence in Asia was gradually eclipsed. Dutch
forces first established independent bases in the East (most significantly Batavia, the heavily fortified headquarters of the Dutch East India Company) and then between 1640 and 1660 wrestled Malacca, Ceylon, some southern Indian ports, and the lucrative Japan trade from the Portuguese. Later, the English and the French established settlements in India and established a trade with China and their own acquisitions would gradually surpass those of the Dutch. Following the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, the British eliminated French influence in India and established the British East India Company as the most important political force on the Indian Subcontinent.
Before the Industrial Revolution in the mid-to-late 19th century, demand for oriental goods remained the driving force behind European imperialism, and (with the important exception of British East India Company rule in India) the European stake in Asia remained confined largely to trading stations and strategic outposts necessary to protect trade. Industrialisation, however, dramatically increased European demand for Asian raw materials; and the severe Long Depression of the 1870s provoked a scramble for new markets for European industrial products and financial services in Africa, the Americas, Eastern Europe, and especially in Asia. This scramble coincided with a new era in global colonial expansion known as “the New Imperialism,” which saw a shift in focus from trade and indirect rule to formal colonial control of vast overseas territories ruled as political extensions of their mother countries. Between the 1870s and the beginning of World War I in 1914, the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands – the established colonial powers in Asia – added to their empires vast expanses of territory in the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, and South East Asia. In the same period, the Empire of Japan, following the Meiji Restoration; the German Empire, following the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871; Tsarist Russia; and the United States, following the Spanish-American War in 1898, quickly emerged as new imperial powers in East Asia and in the Pacific Ocean area.
In Asia, World War I and World War II were played out as struggles among several key imperial powers – conflicts involving the European powers along with Russia and the rising American and Japanese powers. None of the colonial powers, however, possessed the resources to withstand the strains of both world wars and maintain their direct rule in Asia.