The Lion and the Dragon

Britain and China: A History of Conflict

Lawrence James has made a career from studying the British Empire. It is not surprising then that he’s now chosen to examine the defunct British Empire alongside the newest global empire: China.

In a brisk and yet broad narrative, James charts the interactions between Britain and China from 1830 to the present. Typical for a work of comparative history, Britain and China are not the only subjects under examination. James also compares Chinese and British relations to the French, Russian, German, Japanese and American intentions in South-East Asia.

James’ strength is making comparisons which expert and novice readers alike will understand. In early chapters when British power was ascendant, technologically superior Royal Navy warships would pay visits to Chinese territory with impunity ; such that, in 1860 a flotilla including British ships attacked and burned China’s capital and later ports were handed over as trading centres.

Compare this to 2023, when a Chinese fleet could snake back and forth across the supposedly unimpeachable line marking the divide between Chinese and Taiwanese territorial waters. Taiwan may be an independent state enjoying varying degrees of diplomatic support from US and European nations, but at time of writing two Royal Navy warships are sailing to the disputed waters to exercise freedom of navigation. Against the Chinese this display appears as empty as that time in 1941 when two British capital ships also sailed east in a show of force.

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