With the opening of trade routes overseas and around the African continent in the 18th and 19th centuries, Europe -- which had been more-or-less walled off by harsh mountain ranges -- began to make strides in trade and colonization in East Asia. The British East India Company, ordained by royal decree, became the major power player in the region, moving ships, men, and goods between Asia and Europe while controlling trade routes with superior firepower on the seas and land.
As England grew its power, China, which had recently been unified under the Qing Dynasty, continued to trade in spices and textiles. Inner conflict kept China from expanding its own borders, while England became more and more powerful, taking control of India from the Mughal Empire; eventually, the rise of opium as a trade commodity became a key factor. China had closed its borders, allowing trade at only one port (the Canton System of 1756) and England leaned heavily on them to open their gates and stop restricting trade. China responded by attacking opium ships, taxing traders, and destroying stocks, but England persisted. Finally, China agreed to concessions, as England's military power was too strong, and although England took control of Hong Kong, China continued to be a strong economic and trading force in Asia.