6-3: Buffers


Buffer States

Part 1 of 1: Read the following information regarding imperialism in Southeast Asia and answer the questions that follow.

By 1900, nearly all of Southeast Asia was under Western rule. In 1819, Britain founded a new British colony on a small island at the tip of the Malay Peninsula called Singapore. Singapore soon became a major stopping point for steamships going to or from China. The next country to fall to the British was the kingdom of Burma. Britain wanted control of Burma in order to protect its possessions in India. It also wanted a land route through Burma into South China. While geography did allow for an easy land route to South China, Burma still played an important role by keeping competing European empires further away from Britain’s ‘jewel in the crown’ India.

The French watched nervously as the British moved into Burma. France had missionaries in Vietnam. To keep the British from moving into Vietnam, the French government decided to force the Vietnamese to accept French protection. The Vietnamese ruler gave up territories in the Mekong River delta. The French also occupied the city of Saigon. During the next 30 years, the French extended their control over the rest of the country. In 1884, France seized the city of Hanoi and made the Vietnamese Empire a French protectorate. In the 1880s, France also extended its control over Cambodia, Annam, Tonkin, and Laos. By 1887, France included all of its new possessions in a new Union of French Indochina.

After the French conquest of Indochina, Thailand (then called Siam) was the only remaining Free State in Southeast Asia. With the British encroaching from the west and France from the east, Thailand (Siam) was concerned about a western takeover. Two remarkable rulers, King Mongkut and his son King Chulalongkorn, were able to prevent the French and British from placing Thailand (Siam) under colonial rule. Both kings promoted Western learning and had friendly relations with major European powers. In 1896, Britain and France agreed to maintain Thailand as an independent buffer state between their possessions in Southeast Asia. As a result of forward thinking rulers and some geographic luck, Thailand (Siam) was able to become a buffer state between French and British possessions and maintain its independence.

One more conquest took place in Southeast Asia at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, United States naval forces under Commodore George Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in the Philippines. President William McKinley decided to turn the Philippines into an American colony. The Philippine Islands gave the United States a convenient jumping-off point for trade with China. Many Americans, including President McKinley, also believed that Western nations had a moral obligation to “civilize” other parts of the world. The Filipinos did not agree. Emilio Aguinaldo was the leader of a movement for independence in the Philippines. His guerrilla forces fought against U.S. troops to gain their independence, but they were ultimately defeated.


  1. What is the importance of Singapore to the British?
  2. Why were there French missionaries in Vietnam?
  3. How was Thailand (Siam) able to keep its independence?
  4. What motivations do you think drove the Americans to practice imperialism in Asia?
  5. How did a nation’s geographic location assist it in maintaining independence or ensure its domination by European imperialists?