Britain, Tsarist Russia, and Qing China

Russian expansionism first turned eastward after Britain’s success in the First Opium War (1839-1842), in which the Qing dynasty ceded Hong Kong to Britain ‘in perpetuity’. Hong Kong became ‘the British bridgehead in China’.2 While the Russians feared that this bridgehead might soon turn China into ‘another india, with the British gradually taking over the entire country’, they also recognized the potential territorial and commercial opportunities a weakened China offered Russia.3 © The Author(s) 2017

C. Sutton, Britain’s Cold War in Cyprus and Hong Kong, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-33491-2_2

For China, however, this marked the beginning of what was considered in Chinese collective memory to be a century of humiliation (1842-1943). At the centre of this were the so-called ‘unequal treaties’, which dictated the imposed unilateral rights of foreign countries without equal provisions for China. The ‘unequal treaties’ played a central role in Chinese politics thereafter, as both the CCP and Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party, later competed to redefine China and Chinese identity as well as to entrench their respective party’s power.4 British policy-makers were acutely aware of the fact that, by the end of the Second World War and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), Hong Kong was one of the last remnants of the ‘unequal treaties’.

In addition to China and East Asia, British and Russian imperial competition also played out through the cold conflict that British contemporaries called the ‘Great Game’, regarding the future of crumbling Islamic Asia. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877 pushed the ‘Eastern Question’ further into the forefront of British foreign politics. The growing fear of a disadvantageous end of the ailing Ottoman Empire (particularly to Russia’s advantage) prompted the British government to consider previously unfeasible solutions with the intention of propping up the Turks and/or securing British interests in the East, specifically India, through strengthening its presence in the Mediterranean. In 1878, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli proclaimed in the House of Lords that there was ‘room enough for Russia and England in Asia. But the room we require we must secure. [...] In taking Cyprus the movement is not Mediterranean; it is Indian.’5 This was the context in which Britain and Turkey entered into a secret defensive agreement in 1878 which granted Britain permission to occupy and administer Cyprus (while Cyprus remained under Turkish sovereignty) as a material guarantee for Turkish reform, in return for British military support in the event of further Russian aggression. Thus Britain’s imperial rivalry with Russia was integral to the colonization of Hong Kong and Cyprus.

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