The return of the Opium Wars

JULY 7 — In 1839, around 180 years ago, British ships bombarded Chinese ports.  

China’s navy was effectively destroyed and as British soldiers launched expeditionary attacks over 20,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed.  

The reason for the British action? The Chinese authorities had begun enforcing a ban on opium and had seized opium stores and stocks owned by British merchants. 

The British responded with force as the Chinese action was seen as an affront to their power and prestige; they demanded compensation for the opium destroyed.  

Even today after 180 years, it’s hard to fully get your head around this passage of history.  

China’s Qing rulers had sensibly decided to prohibit opium. At the time, about 25 per cent of the Chinese male population were addicts.  

The British government itself had banned the use of opium within Great Britain but the same government actively supported the opium trade in China. 

The Chinese, therefore, effectively moved against drug traffickers but were told instead to pay them compensation. 

China’s refusal to pay led to the destruction of several Chinese cities.  

The British government killed thousands of Chinese in order to support the drug trade. 

The hypocrisy, cruelty and savagery of the British position is hard to fathom.  

The aftermath of the First Opium War (there was a Second Opium War too) saw treaties imposed that would cripple the Chinese state for a further century.   

A nation was crippled because it tried to defend itself from drugs.  The causes and aftermath of the Opium Wars should make any fair-minded human angry. 

They should certainly make any Asian angry.  

And while we can try and convince ourselves that the world we live in today, with its global connectivity and belief in equality, is different the reality is, in many respects, it isn’t.  

Earlier this week, British marines seized an oil tanker they claimed was in British-controlled waters (off the coast of British controlled Gibraltar in the Mediterranean). 

The ship, say British authorities, was going to supply Iranian oil to Syria.  

As the EU has placed sanctions on Syria, the British and the US — which apparently encouraged the UK to seize the ship — argue they had the right to seize the vessel and its cargo.  

Iran, on the other hand, argues that as a sovereign country it has the right to send its oil to any other sovereign country. 

How can EU and US sanctions prevent Syria trading with Iran?

The Iranian position appears to be coherent. Again if the situation was reversed, imagine if Iran seized a British ship — accusing it of trading with the USA.  Iran would face bombardment and possibly annihilation.

While the governments in place in Iran and Syria may be distasteful, the fundamental idea that Western nations can do what they want when they want, that EU-US law is the law of the world is much more dangerous than any Third World regime.  

But this incident, along with the US’ broader behaviour towards Iran over the past few months, proves the world’s major Western powers are as committed as ever to the doctrine of might makes right.  

To be fair, this method has worked well for Western nations for near 600 years and this is something Asian nations need to take to heart. 

Today it’s Iran but tomorrow it could be any other Asian nation that gets in the way or fails to toe the line.  

One hundred and eighty years after the First Opium War, most Asian states (excepting China and possibly India) remain open to being bullied by the West.  

South-east Asian nations are particularly vulnerable.  

We don’t co-operate sufficiently to deter potential aggression as a bloc and we simply lack the economic or military might to push back as individual nations.  

We still have no real answer to the West’s gun boat diplomacy.  Not in terms of our economies, militaries and most of all in terms of our minds.  

The South-East Asian states are divided and far less than mighty and in a world where might makes right, that puts us in a very dangerous place.  

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.