People who grew up during the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear war seemed so very real, might be tempted to think that we have never invaded China, simply because during the Cold War such an act would have been basically asking to be nuked. But, of course, we have invaded China on a number of occasions, as many Chinese are very well aware. Already by 1637 we were invading China. In that year, four heavily armed ships sent by Sir William Courteen turned up in Macao and proceeded to capture one of the Bogue forts, annoying quite a few people before departing again.
It wasn’t the best of starts to our relations with China, but there was worse, much worse, to come.
By 1711, British merchants were being given permission to enter Guangzhou to buy tea. Nothing wrong with that, except that eventually we started dealing in much less pleasant commodities, in particular opium. We began to send large quantities of opium to China from India. The Chinese government tried to put a stop to this with assorted measures. However, some local British authorities saw these measures as an unacceptable infringement on the rights of British merchants and the First Opium War broke out. British and Chinese warships clashed and in 1840 an expeditionary force landed in China. We fought the Battle of Amoy, took the Bogue forts at the mouth of the Pearl River, occupied Shanghai and in the last big battle of the war took what is now Zhenjiang in July 1842. This was not our finest hour, but it’s worth pointing out that, even at the time, some Brits knew that. Gladstone, for instance, loudly denounced the war and the trade it was protecting.
After the war ended, our winnings from the Chinese included a lot of money, Hong Kong Island and the opening up of assorted trade ports, such as Shanghai.
The peace wasn’t to last. By 1856 we were attacking China again. This was the Second Opium War, also known as the Arrow War, because of a dispute over a ship called the Arrow. Soon the French joined in on our side, and the Americans and Russians, keen to get involved in China too, gave us support. In June 1859 the Treaties of Tientsin gave the four powers pretty much what they wanted. However, in the wake of this treaty, the Chinese emperor decided to take a tougher line and when, in June 1859, a British military expedition tried to escort British and French envoys to Beijing, fighting broke out again. The result was that in 1860 a large British and French force headed for Beijing. The Chinese defenders were decisively defeated at the Battle of Palikao in September, and in October we entered Beijing and burned the Summer Palace. From the negotiations that ended the war we got even more from the Chinese, including Kowloon.
Relations continued to be tense. For instance, in 1868 the Yangzhou riot prompted the British consul in Shanghai to sail up the Yangtze to Nanjing with Royal Marines in a show of force.
In 1898 we considerably expanded the territory we controlled in China. We leased the New Territories around Hong Kong for ninety-nine years, and we also picked up another bit of territory that few people are aware of today, Weihai, which was far up the Chinese coast towards the Korean Peninsula. We held that until 1930.
In 1899, things once again started getting very tense. This was the Boxer Uprising, and by the summer of 1900 a bunch of foreigners, including diplomats, civilians and soldiers, were under siege in the Legation Quarter in Beijing. The siege lasted fifty-five days. An international relief force under our Vice Admiral Edward Seymour was stopped and surrounded. But a second international force under our Lieutenant-General Alfred Gaselee finally made it through, defeated the Chinese forces opposing them and captured Beijing. The peace treaty imposed heavy penalties on the Chinese.
In 1904, fearful of spreading Russian influence, we invaded Tibet. We had many more lethal weapons than the Tibetans, and we killed a large number of them. In the years between the First and Second World Wars, British forces were involved in yet another series of incidents in China. For example, in 1926 there was the Battle of Wanhsien involving HMS Cockchafer and HMS Widgeon, and in 1927 we sent significant troops to Shanghai to protect the international settlement there.
With the arrival of the Second World War, we found ourselves fighting on the same side as the Chinese. After that, there were to be yet more difficulties in the relationship, but our days of invading China were finally over.