Britain in the World
Events gallery heading 1901: Living at the Time of the Census Events of 1901
The Problem of Isolation
Britain entered into an alliance with Japan in January 1902. This meant an end to Britain's previous policy of isolation. The alliance with Japan was designed to restrict Russian advances in China and Central Asia. Britain aimed, in theory, to maintain the integrity of China, and, in practice, to keep others out of the Yangtze Valley. The alliance would enable Britain to reduce its naval commitments in the Far East, and prevent the possibility of bargaining between Russia and Japan.

The Mikaba - link to an enlarged version

There was some opposition within Britain to the new alliance. Arthur Balfour, First Lord of the Treasury, protested to Lord Lansdowne, the Foreign Secretary, that it might embroil Britain in a war with Russia and (because Russia was allied with France) even with France. Nevertheless, in spite of Balfour's concerns, the alliance with Japan was not a true end to isolation. The terms of the alliance made it unlikely that Britain would be drawn into a war in pursuit of Japan's aims and, whilst Germany welcomed its restricting effect on Russia's position, it was also a reinforcement of the extra-European focus of Britain's priorities.

In seeking a solution to Britain's isolation, some politicians and writers, notably H.G. Wells, turned to the USA. Although commentators discussed the advantages and disadvantages of a trans-Atlantic alliance, in reality Britain had little choice but to seek good relations with America. The USA had recently acquired Cuba, the Philippines and Hawaii from Spain: in terms of population and of military and economic strength it far outstripped Britain, which was quite unable in military terms to defend its interests in Canada.

In effect, by 1901 (if not earlier) Britain had conceded supremacy to the USA in the Pacific, in Central America and in the Caribbean. This balance in the relationship was reflected in the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty of November 1901, in which Lord Lansdowne capitulated on the issue of the international construction and operation of the Panama Canal.

However, like Britain, the USA had its own domestic concerns. The assassination of President McKinley in October 1901 raised the spectre of a worldwide phenomenon of anarchism and terrorism, and, with hindsight, foreshadowed the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the event that sparked the First World War.


The diplomatic compound in Beijing - link to an enlarged version

In 1901 China was reeling from the effects of the Boxer Rebellion, which had broken out in 1898 and had been crushed in 1900. The rebellion was initiated by the Boxer sect (I-ho ch'uan), which had emerged in northern China in response to recent crises - war with Japan, famine, drought and plagues of locusts - and in protest at the level of foreign involvement in China. Britain, in particular, had had commercial interests there for more than half a century, and controlled much of China's overseas trade. Other foreign powers, notably France, the USA, Russia and Japan, also had ambitions for profit and power in the country, and there was considerable tension among them.
By the end of 1899 the Boxers had received high-level support within China and constituted a serious military force. In June 1900 they laid siege to the diplomatic and Roman Catholic compounds in Beijing (Peking), but were routed by the arrival of a large international force in August. 1901 saw the aftermath of the rebellion: under the Boxer Protocol of 7 September, the foreign powers decided to exact an indemnity from China, rather than occupying and dismembering the country.
Old Friends and Enemies? The Problem of Isolation The Empire Moving to Britain The South African War Censorship Methods of Barbarism?