The Open Door Policy

"At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. established the Open Door policy, ensuring that China remained open to commerce and maintaining China's "territorial and administrative integrity." Was the Open Door policy necessary to maintain open trade in China? Or was it an imperialist policy?"

Ever since the late eighteenth century, 1760, when the first of China's ports, Canton, was opened to trade with the West, colonial America had become intrigued with the far away Asian country. Just one year after they were finally able to win the Revolutionary War, fledgling America was sending its first ship to China, ready to trade for silk, spices, and Chinese tea. However trade with China expanded slowly for the United States, one reason being Britain's immense dominance over the country due to the British East India Company and the trade of Opium.

In 1839 the Opium War began between Britain and China over the opium dispute. Britain eventually won the war in 1842, was given the island of Hong Kong, and also gained access to four new trading ports; Shanghai, Ningpo, Amoy, and Foochow through the Treaty of Nanking. Unwilling to allow Britain to gain more influence in China, President Taylor sent Caleb Cushing to China in order to gain the same terms as Britain had received in the Treaty of Nanking, which they did in the Treaty of Wanghia, 1844. The Treaty also stated that if China gave privileges to any other nation other than the U.S., the U.S. and its citizens would be entitled to the same privileges.

China was once again forced to open more ports to foreign trade, eleven more, after losing to France and Britain in the second Opium Wars. They had to later sign similar treaties with Russia and the U.S. Despite the treaties offered to them, the U.S. didn't really make an effort to expand their trade with China until about 1870, when China started to trade the U.S.' cotton, rather than Britain's much more expensive cotton.

It was in 1895, when Japan defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War, that the Qing dynasty became weak enough for Japan and the other European powers to begin to carve out their own "spheres of influence" along the Chinese coast. The foreign powers were able to control commerce, and natural resources within their spheres. Nevertheless, in the late 1890s, it began to seem as though they were intending to break China up into colonies. In 1897 Britain turned to the U.S. in search of an ally that would help to maintain the open door of Chinese trade, however, they were turned down since America was busy worrying about a possible war with Spain because of the island of Cuba and they wanted to refrain from creating foreign alliances. Soon after Russia was able to gain land in China, as well as rights to the New-Chwang seaport. The United States became concerned that Russia would close the port to them, it being their most used trade port in China, still their trade did not depend heavily on China and they redirected their concerns to the Spanish-American war, since the U.S. government did not want to join the other nations in claiming Chinese territory anyway.

However by the end of the Spanish-American War, the United States had acquired the territories of Guam and the Philippines, territories that could be seen as stepping stones to China, now that the U.S.' views on China were changing. The U.S.' victory over Spain had finally gained the U.S. a new reputation as a world power and many felt that, in order to greater assert themselves as a world power, they needed to become more involved in China. In September 1898, President McKinley announced that the U.S. was going to become as strong a trading partner with China as the other Western powers. This led to American diplomat and China expert, William Rockhill, to draft an Open Door note for the secretary of State, Hay, to send to the major powers in China. It was a way for the U.S. to keep trade with China open while still not becoming involved in any foreign alliances.

The Open Door note secured equal access to Chinese ports for all nations, assured China's power to collect tariffs, and declared that harbor fees and rail charges were applicable to all nations in each sphere of influence. Hay sent versions of the note to Britain, Germany, Russia, Japan, France, and Italy to accept it. All the other countries agreed to keep the Open Door policy if the other countries agreed to do so as well. Then on March 20, 1900, hay announced that he had received "final and definite" responses from all the other countries supporting the Open Door policy. While the notes could not guarantee that the nations were adhering to what they said, Hay could not take it back to the senate to ratify as a treaty since anti-imperialists would block the it as vehemently as they blocked the annexation of the Philippines, almost succeeding as well, especially since many Americans were wary of foreign alliances. On July 3, 1900, he issued another note. This new note pledged to respect china's "administrative and territorial entity," it was made in response to the latest quelled anti-foreigner uprising, the Boxer Rebellion.

There were many Americas out there who truly believed that the Open Door Policy was the right thing to do and that it was beneficial to everyone. The arguments for the policy are as follows:

The main argument for the Open Door Policy is that it increased trade with China which would benefit the U.S. economically by providing a new market for American goods. They noted that, just the fact that about a quarter of the whole world's population resided in China meant it was a huge potential market for U.S. products. They argued that they already knew the full potential of trade with Europe and if they wanted to increase their foreign trade, trade with someone else was the only way. The policy's supporters also warned that the U.S. had been risking getting left out of a very lucrative China trade by the foreign countries that had already established spheres of influence in the country. They feared that the other nations would have attempted to prevent other nations from trading within their spheres, which would prove disastrous since they held no land in China. They felt the policy was necessary to ensure that the U.S. was able to trade with China. They felt that they should be treated equally with the other nations and that the first note of the policy did that by stating that any privileges given to another country must be given to the United States as well. Advocates also denied the claims that the policy went against what George Washington stated in his farewell address by stating that he would never have wanted the country's commerce to be cramped by a narrow interpretation of his words and that the country's commercial interests and relations had grown beyond what Washington could have imagined. Moreover, the policy's supporters believed, the policy would not only benefit the U.S., but China as well. It was becoming evident that the foreign powers in China would have probably divided the country into colonies, like they did with Africa, and that by preventing that they were preventing disputes between major powers as they fought over land in China, something that almost happened between Britain and Russia, but was only avoided because Britain backed down in the end. Lastly many believed that being a strong presence in China was important to upholding their new reputation as a world power.

While the obvious benefits of the policy were made by its supporters, anti-imperialists just could not accept the hypocrisy of what the U.S. was doing in China and the Philippines. The arguments against the policy are as follows:

Anti-imperialists felt that the Open Door Policy was wrong since it was an instance in which the U.S. was imposing its will upon a sovereign nation, something that they had been all too familiar with in their past. "We have only to recall the grievances enumerated in the Declaration of Independence to learn how an ocean may dilute justice and how the cry of the oppressed can be silenced by distance," was said by William Jennings Bryan about the Open Door Policy. The fact that the U.S. hadn't even bothered to consult with China about the policy was another thing that anti-imperialists just could not stomach. They knew it involved China's vital interests, and yet they felt the need to keep China in the dark. Moreover, anti-policy advocates insisted, the Open Door Policy violated a long standing principle of the United States of avoiding foreign alliances. They believed that it was wrong to go against Washington's wishes by doing the exact opposite of what he wanted. As for the argument that the U.S. had run out of foreign trade to explore, the critics pointed out that China only accounted for 2% of the U.S.' foreign trade and that they didn't have much staked on China's future anyway. Furthermore, critics pointed out that the policy risked entangling the U.S. in foreign conflicts by committing to protect China commercially and administratively. Just for the policy to be worth anything, the U.S. had to back it up with military force, if not China could just violate it at will. Anti-imperialists were especially wary of risking war with Japan and Russia who both had strong interests in the region and were particularly strong nations that the U.S. couldn't afford to go to war with. Overall, policy critics believed that the policy had to many risks associated with it and not enough benefits.

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