Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Imperialism in Asia: An Essay

Book Cover

Book Title

Imperialism in Asia: An Essay. Auckland: New Zealand Asia Institute, 2005


Tarling, Nicholas


Tarling's essay concerns itself largely with the definition of 'empire' and the contexts in which the term has been applied to describe different characteristics of that era. Maarten Kuitenbrouwer had asserted that in historical research 'one should avoid definitions that are too wide.' There have been many forms of 'empire', polities which have proclaimed itself as one or been seen by others as empire. The word 'imperialism' has also been utilized in many ways, some connected with such polities, some not. The essay is thus written to pin down 'imperialism' sufficiently - both in terms of action and timing, in so doing make it useful in historical explanation.

Tarling highlights arguments made by other scholars such as Benjamin Cohen, who has found the 'real taproot' of imperialism in 'the anarchic organization of the international system of states'. Following Cohen's argument, nations develop the need for dominion because they are driven to maximize their individual power position, which was in turn caused by national insecurities. Thus, in answering what made insecurity of states led to imperialism and the peculiarity of the period 1870-1914, one should refer to the early modern period, where competing national sovereignties were highly prevalent.

Capturing extra-European resources not only offered a further means of reconstructing the state but also a means of ensuring security in a changing Europe. Success was thus a way to enable states to dominate others or avoid being dominated. In this way, the notion of imperialism was seen to have arisen and coincided with the period of the emergence of the state system in Europe, which was accompanied by a deep sense of insecurity.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The scope covers the brief period from about 1870-1914 - in which the major powers rather suddenly set about completing the partition among themselves of the remainder of the world, the process sped up by the spread of the industrial revolution and the decline of British primacy.

This essay puts an emphasis on political control, with the assumption that act and advocacy takes place in context, and that those involved may be influenced by a range of factors and was inspired by a range of motives. In this way, the context would be that of the pre-modern era and the early colonial period, where the international system of competing sovereignties and the desire to assert one's national strength became the context for dominance over other non-European territories.

An essential topic was seen in the study of the responses 'imperialism' met in the non-Western states and territories in which it operated; 'Imperialism' was thus not shaped solely by the peculiar characteristics it had possessed in each Western state - according to their geographical position, their economic development, their domestic politics, their previous history. The attitudes of non-Western states towards the Western states and their commercial and political ambitions, as well as how they had been affected by economic and political change in the period of British primacy, even before the age of 'imperialism', are some of the pertinent issues which affected the nature of the new 'imperialism'.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

His methodology is specific to the development of the usage of the word 'imperialism' in the narrowly-defined period of 1870-1914 to uncover its meaning and perceptions of imperialism at that time. However, it is also deemed important to understand the significance of the word in the wider global context. Why did the term 'imperialism' become used more broadly, not only to cover the subsequent period but also the period before the word began to be used in public debate. Yet, the term 'imperialism' was not used as widely for activities of the Chinese or Mongols. Tarling asserts that 'imperialism' had later become involved in both national and international politics. Imperialism was also part of the 'state-building of the period. It was part of state formation since there were many other changes that were taking place beyond the control of the government-initiated changes. Finally, Tarling argues that non-Western states were subjected to many of the state-building tendencies of the West.

Both the expansion over the long period since the sixteenth century which some are tempted to classify as imperialism, and the shorter phase of international competition to which this essay has appropriated the term 'imperialism', are argued to have been the baby steps in a long process of 'globalization'.

Annotated by Michelle Djong