The United States could not ignore the largest continent on earth forever. Since Commodore Matthew Perry "opened" Japan in 1854, trade with Asia was a reality, earning millions for American merchants and manufacturers. Slowly but surely the United States acquired holdings in the region, making the ties even stronger. Already Alaska, Hawaii, and American Samoa flew the American flag. The Spanish-American War brought Guam and the Philippines as well. These territories needed supply routes and defense, so ports of trade and naval bases became crucial.
The most populous nation on earth was already divided between encroaching European empires. China still had an emperor and system of government, but the foreign powers were truly in control. Although the Chinese Empire was not carved into colonies such as Africa, Europe did establish quasi-colonial entities called spheres of influence after 1894. Those enjoying special privileges in this fashion included Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Japan. Secretary of State John Hay feared that if these nations established trade practices that excluded other nations, American trade would suffer. Britain agreed and Hay devised a strategy to preserve open trade. He circulated letters among all the powers called Open Door Notes, requesting that all nations agree to free trade in China. While Britain agreed, all the other powers declined in private responses. Hay, however, lied to the world and declared that all had accepted. The imperial powers, faced with having to admit publicly to greedy designs in China, remained silent and the Open Door went into effect.
In 1900, foreign occupation of China resulted in disaster. A group of Chinese nationalists called the Fists of Righteous Harmony attacked Western property. The Boxers, as they were known in the West, continued to wreak havoc until a multinational force invaded to stop the uprising. The Boxer Rebellion marked the first time United States armed forces invaded another continent without aiming to acquire the territory. The rebels were subdued, and China was forced to pay an indemnity of $330 million to the United States.
Japan was also a concern for the new imperial America. In 1904, war broke out between Russia and Japan. The war was going poorly for the Russians. Theodore Roosevelt offered to mediate the peace process as the war dragged on. The two sides met with Roosevelt in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and before long, a treaty was arranged. Despite agreeing to its terms, the Japanese public felt that Japan should have been awarded more concessions. Anti-American rioting swept the island. Meanwhile, Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. This marked the first time an American President received such an offer.
Relations with Japan remained icy. In California, Japanese immigrants to America were faced with harsh discrimination, including segregated schooling. In the informal Gentleman's Agreement of 1907, the United States agreed to end the practice of separate schooling in exchange for a promise to end Japanese immigration. That same year, Roosevelt decided to display his "big stick," the new American navy. He sent the flotilla, known around the world as the Great White Fleet, on a worldwide tour. Although it was meant to intimidate potential aggressors, particularly Japan, the results of the journey were uncertain. Finally, in 1908, Japan and the United States agreed to respect each other's holdings on the Pacific Rim in the Root-Takahira Agreement. Sending troops overseas, mediating international conflicts, and risking trouble to maintain free trade, the United States began to rapidly shed its isolationist past.