The first agreement to use the term "spheres of influence" was one concluded between Britain and Germany (1885) that separated and defined their respective spheres in the territories on the Gulf of Guinea. By its provisions, Britain agreed not to acquire territory, accept protectorates, or interfere with the extension of German influence in that part of Guinea lying east of a specified line. Germany undertook a like commitment regarding Britain and the territory west of the line. As the terms of this treaty indicate, it is possible for a nation to have a protectorate within a sphere of influence when the sphere concept is applied in a broad regional sense.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century, many agreements were concluded recognizing spheres of influence in Africa, the Middle East, and China. By the Anglo-French agreement of 8 April 1904, Britain recognized that Morocco was within France's sphere of influence and France recognized that Egypt was within Britain's sphere. Britain and Russia signed a treaty on 31 August 1907, specifying that Afghanistan was outside of Russia's sphere—meaning, of course, that it was within Britain's. Persia was divided into three zones: a Russian sphere in the north, a British sphere in the south, and a neutral area in between.
In China, the spheres of influence were initially marked out in 1896–1898. At the beginning of that period, Russia secured from China the right to construct a railway line across Manchuria that would provide a short route for the Trans-Siberian Railway to reach Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. The Russian-owned Chinese Eastern Railway Company, which was to construct and operate the line, was given exclusive administrative control of the railway zone stretching across Manchuria. Two years later, in 1898, Russia secured from China a twenty-five-year lease on Port Arthur, a naval base site in southern Manchuria. By this agreement, Russia was also permitted to construct a north-south railway line between Port Arthur (Lüshun) and Harbin, thus connecting the naval base with the main line of the Chinese Eastern Railway running across Manchuria. Russia also secured some mining concessions in Manchuria.
The treaties between Russia and China did not specifically recognize Manchuria as a Russian sphere of influence, but by the end of 1898, Russia's rights in Manchuria were so extensive that it was apparent that the czarist regime would seek to dominate capital investment and to make its political influence preeminent in that area of China. An Anglo-Russian agreement in 1899 greatly strengthened Russia's claim to a Manchurian sphere of influence. Britain agreed not to seek any railway concessions north of China's Great Wall, which separated China proper from Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. Russia reciprocated with a pledge not to seek railway concessions in the Yangtze (Chang) Valley.
While Russia was seeking rights in Manchuria, Germany was gaining a sphere in China's Shantung (Shandong) province. Using the murder of two German missionaries as an excuse, Germany landed troops in Shantung in 1897 and proceeded to extract from China (1898) a treaty granting extensive rights in Shantung. By its terms, Germany obtained a ninety-nine-year lease of a naval base site at Kiaochow (Jiaoxian) on the southern coast of Shantung and the exclusive right to furnish all foreign capital and materials for projects in Shantung. Added to these sweeping rights were specific railway concessions and mining rights in the province. The monopoly on capital investment in Shantung province gave Germany a claim to a sphere of influence in China stronger than that of any other power.
The British and French spheres in China that were delineated in 1898 were not granted in such definitive terms. Britain's sphere in the Yangtze Valley rested primarily upon an Anglo-Chinese treaty concluded in February 1898, whereby China committed itself not to alienate any of the Yangtze area—meaning that China could not cede or lease territory in that area to another power. Britain secured a lease on a naval base site on the China coast in the same year but not in the Yangtze area. It was, rather, on the northern coast of Shantung, across the Gulf of Chihli (Bo Hai) from the Russian base at Port Arthur. France's claim to a sphere in southern China rested partly upon specific concessions and partly upon a nonalienation agreement. In 1885, France began securing railway concessions in southern China, and in 1895, China agreed to call exclusively upon French capital for the exploitation of mines in the three southernmost provinces. In 1898, China concluded a treaty with France in which it agreed not to alienate any Chinese territories bordering French Indochina. Later in the same year, France obtained a ninety-nine-year lease on a naval base site at Kuangchow (Guangzhou) Bay, on China's southern coast.
As stated, although advocacy of an open door for trade and investment has generally led the United States to oppose spheres of influence, it has occasionally looked upon them with favor. During the Moroccan crisis of 1905–1906, for instance, the United States vigorously opposed any compromise that might lead to a German sphere in a portion of Morocco. At the same time, after receiving assurances that the open door would remain in effect for thirty years, the administration of Theodore Roosevelt voiced no opposition to terms of a settlement that obviously recognized Morocco as being in France's sphere. In fact, Roosevelt gave every indication that he favored a virtually complete takeover of Morocco by France.
It is with regard to spheres in China that American policy has been most thoroughly delineated. When in 1899 the United States enunciated the Open Door policy for China, it sought only the preservation of equal opportunity for ordinary trade within the spheres, not the destruction of the spheres themselves. Equal investment opportunity was not demanded. Although the Open Door Notes did not formally recognize the spheres, Secretary of State John Hay accepted the spheres as existing facts. When Russia militarily occupied Manchuria in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion and then proceeded to demand extensive rights there, the United States was willing to recognize the exceptional position of Russia in Manchuria if Russia would permit equality of opportunity for trade. When in 1905, at the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan secured all the Russian rights and concessions in southern Manchuria, it did so with the full blessing of the U.S. government. President Theodore Roosevelt even indicated to China that it could not question the transfer to Japan of either the Port Arthur leasehold or the part of the Chinese Eastern Railway that was in southern Manchuria.
There were, however, limits to the accepting attitude of the Roosevelt administration. When in 1908 Russia attempted to take over the administration of Harbin on the ground that it was part of the railway zone, Secretary of State Elihu Root resisted vigorously. His opposition was motivated by the desire not only to restrain Russia in its northern Manchurian sphere but also to forestall Japan from making a similar interpretation of its railway zone rights in southern Manchuria. U.S. policy in the Harbin dispute indicates clearly that the Roosevelt administration did not give either Russia or Japan a free hand in their respective spheres.
The administration of William Howard Taft, redefining the Open Door policy to include the demand for equal investment opportunity, launched a full-scale attack on the spheres of influence in Manchuria. Secretary of State Philander Knox came forward with a plan to have the major powers loan China money to purchase the Russian railway line (the Chinese Eastern Railway) and the Japanese railway (later known as the South Manchurian Railway). He also proposed, as an alternate plan, the construction of a new line from Chin-chow (Jinzhou) to Aigun that would parallel and compete with the Japanese line. Neither of these schemes was implemented because of lack of support from the other interested powers, including Britain. The principal result of the Knox program was to drive Russia and Japan closer together. In 1907 they had signed a secret treaty recognizing each other's spheres in Manchuria; and in 1910 they signed another accord, this time agreeing to support each other in the further development of their spheres. Meanwhile, the spheres were softening in China south of the Great Wall. In 1909, Germany, Britain, and France agreed to share in a project for a railway line stretching from Canton to Hankow and then westward to Chungking (Chongqing). The following year the United States was admitted to the project and the Four-Power Consortium was formed by the United States, Britain, France, and Germany for the purpose of sharing Chinese railway concessions.
The outbreak of World War I significantly changed the power relationships in the Far East. Whereas the Taft administration had waged an offensive campaign against the spheres in Manchuria, the administration of Woodrow Wilson was forced into a defensive position. In the first months of the war, Japan seized the German sphere in Shantung. This was followed in January 1915 by the presentation to China of the Twenty-one Demands, which included assent to the transfer of German rights in Shantung and a great increase in Japan's rights in southern Manchuria. Japan also demanded rights in eastern Inner Mongolia that would make that area a Japanese sphere. Wilson, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, and Robert Lansing attempted, by making concessions to Japan, to influence it to observe restraint. In doing so they made some remarkable statements relating to the Japanese spheres. In a note to Japan drafted by Lansing and sent over Bryan's signature, the United States recognized that territorial contiguity created "special relations" between Japan and the districts of southern Manchuria, eastern Mongolia, and Shantung.
The attempt to restrain Japan was only partly successful. The Japanese settled for considerably less than they had sought in the Twenty-one Demands, but this was probably due more to British than to U.S. influence. In 1917, Lansing, now secretary of state, made another attempt to restrain the Japanese. In doing so, he concluded an exchange of notes with a special Japanese envoy, Kikujiro Ishii, that contained an even more sweeping recognition of Japan's special interests than had been given in 1915. It stated that territorial propinquity gave Japan "special interests" in China, particularly in that part of China contiguous to Japanese possessions. In return for this extraordinary statement, Lansing obtained a secret protocol in which the United States and Japan agreed not to take advantage of conditions in China to seek special rights that would abridge the rights of other friendly states. Again, the endeavor to bridle the Japanese met with only limited success. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Japan won approval for the transfer of the German rights in Shantung, a gain that was softened only by Japan's informal agreement to give up the navy base at Kiaochow.
Many of the goals that the Wilson administration sought in East Asia were finally achieved by the administration of Warren G. Harding at the Washington Conference of 1921–1922. By the Nine-Power Treaty of 6 February 1922, Japan and the other signatories pledged to refrain from seeking new rights in China that would create new spheres of influence or enhance rights in existing spheres. Furthermore, in bilateral negotiations with China during the Washington Conference, Japan gave up all the former German rights in Shantung, retaining only a mortgage on the Tsing-tao-to-Tsinan railway line that was sold to China. Later in 1922, Japan agreed to the abrogation of the Lansing-Ishii exchange of notes. Existing historical accounts do not fully explain why Japan pursued such a moderate policy at the Washington Conference. It was in any case a moderation that ended with the seizure of Manchuria in 1931–1933. In 1937 came full-scale war with China, and by the end of 1938, Japan was claiming all of East Asia as its sphere.
Japan's application of the sphere of influence concept to an entire region of the world was not wholly new. The Western Hemisphere had often been referred to as being in the United States sphere as a result of the Monroe Doctrine. In 1940 the sphere concept received another regional application. The Tripartite Pact among Germany, Italy, and Japan in that year, though not specifically using the term "sphere of influence," in essence recognized East Asia as a Japanese sphere and Europe as a German and Italian sphere.