What You Should Know about Unequal Treaties

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Japan's government soon mastered western diplomatic tricks, and began to impose its own unequal treaties on neighboring nations. Buyenlarge via Getty Images

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, stronger powers imposed humiliating, one-sided treaties on weaker nations in East Asia. The treaties imposed harsh conditions on the target nations, sometimes seizing territory, allowing citizens of the stronger nation special rights within the weaker nation, and infringing on the targets' sovereignty. These documents are known as "unequal treaties," and they played a key role in creating nationalism in Japan, China, and also Korea.

 

The first of the unequal treaties was imposed on Qing China by the British Empire in 1842 after the First Opium War. This document, the Treaty of Nanjing, forced China to allow foreigner traders to use five treaty ports, to accept foreign Christian missionaries on its soil, and to allow missionaries, traders, and other British citizens the right of extraterritoriality. This meant that Britons who committed crimes in China would be tried by consular officials from their own nation, rather than facing Chinese courts. In addition, China had to cede the island of Hong Kong to Britain for 99 years.

In 1854, an American battle fleet commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry opened Japan to American shipping by threat of force. The U.S. imposed an agreement called the Convention of Kanagawa on the Tokugawa government. Japan agreed to open two ports to American ships in need of supplies, guaranteed rescue and safe passage for American sailors shipwrecked on its shores, and allowed a permanent U.S. consulate to be set up in Shimoda.

In return, the U.S. agreed not to bombard Edo (Tokyo).

The Harris Treaty of 1858 between the US and Japan further expanded U.S. rights within Japanese territory, and was even more clearly unequal than the Convention of Kanagawa. This second treaty opened five additional ports to US trading vessels, allowed U.S. citizens to live and to purchase property in any of the treaty ports, granted Americans extraterritorial rights in Japan, set very favorable import and export duties for U.S. trade, and allowed Americans to build Christian churches and worship freely in the treaty ports.

Observers in Japan and abroad saw this document as a portent of the colonization of Japan; in reaction, the Japanese overthrew the weak Tokugawa Shogunate in the 1868 Meiji Restoration.

In 1860, China lost the Second Opium War to Britain and France, and was forced to ratify the Treaty of Tianjin. This treaty was quickly followed by similar unequal agreements with the US and Russia. The Tianjin provisions included the opening of a number of new treaty ports to all of the foreign powers, the opening of the Yangtze River and Chinese interior to foreign traders and missionaries, allowing foreigners to live and establish legations in the Qing capital at Beijing, and granted them all extremely favorable trade rights. 

Meanwhile, Japan was modernizing its political system and its military, revolutionizing the country in just a few short years.  It imposed the first unequal treaty of its own on Korea in 1876.  In the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1876, Japan unilaterally ended Korea's tributary relationship with Qing China, opened three Korean ports to Japanese trade, and allowed Japanese citizens extraterritorial rights in Korea. This was the first step toward Japan's outright annexation of Korea in 1910.

In 1895, Japan prevailed in the First Sino-Japanese War. This victory convinced the western powers that they would not be able to enforce their unequal treaties with the rising Asian power any longer. When Japan seized Korea in 1910, it also nullified the unequal treaties between the Joseon government and various western powers. The majority of China's unequal treaties lasted until the Second Sino-Japanese War, which began in 1937; the western powers abrogated most of the agreements by the end of World War II. Great Britain, however, retained Hong Kong until 1997. The British handover of the island to mainland China marked the final end of the unequal treaty system in East Asia.