Western influence had been increasing throughout China during the nineteenth century. Britain and France had forced concessions from the Imperial government who had opened several Chinese ports to foreign trade. In addition a series of civil conflicts had engulfed China , and during one of these British and French troops had occupied Peking. Russia had acquired the Amur Maritime Province from China in the 1850s and was building up its business interests in Korea and Manchuria.
Korea was very much the one client state remaining to China by the 1880s ; the others had been carved off by Britain (eg Nepal and Burma) or France (eg Cochin China). Korea was a very unstable kingdom and in the latter decades of the nineteenth century became a place where Chinese , Japanese and Russian interests clashed.
China and Japan signed the Convention of Tientsin in 1885 but ten years later differences erupted into the Sino-Japanese War which saw Japanese troops drive the Chinese out of Korea , invade Manchuria and occupy Shantung. The Treaty of Shimonoseki ended the war leaving Japan in possession of most of the Chinese Fleet and receiving from China , on top of a massive indemnity , the Liaotung Peninsular. Russia, Germany and France forced Japan to back down on this latter point , but Japan remained strong in Korea and used the money from her indemnity to build up her fleet.
In contrast China , ruled now by the Dragon Empress , had been severely weakened by the outcome of the war. European powers pressed their claims - Germany occupied Kiao-chau in Shantung whilst Brtain turned its occupation of Hong Kong into 99-year lease. Korea which had been made formally independent by Shimonoseki became a playground for foreign ambitions , with parties from several nations landing in 1897 , and Russia and Japan building up a political and economic presence. Russia continued to build up its presence in Manchuria , extending its railway interests and negotiating further concessions from the Chinese.
In the midst of all this , and as a direct response to it , a revolution hit the main urban centres of Imperial China , the so-called Boxer Society spawning thuggish off-shoots who terrorised foreigners in a violent upsurge of anti-imperialist feeling. They drove the Empress and her court out of Peking and besieged the foreign legations there and in Tientsin.
The response of the interested foreign powers was to create an allied force drawn from the navies of Britain , France , Russia , Germany , Italy , Austria (?) and the United States along with a sizeable landing force. Their first requirement was to seize a briedgehead on land , a task made difficult by the existence of the recently-refurbished Taku forts The Allied fleet was thus required to assault the Taku forts
Having seized them the Allied force raised the siege of Tientsin and advanced inland to liberate Peking , a battle during which the ancient library of the Imperial Court was burnt down by its defenders. Peking was liberated , the besieged legations freed , the Boxers crushed , and after considering other options the Imperial court was restored to power.
Russia and Japan would continue to vy for influence in Korea. Russia secured the lease of Manchuria , then agreed to withdraw and then reneged on this latter point , instead continuing to develop its infrastructure within Manchuria , and developing Port Arthur as it major base in the Far East.
At the same time both Russia and Japan were building up their fleets , Japan using British yards to supplement her own developing industry , whilst several American-built and French-built warships boosted the numbers Russia was able to produce. By early 1904 Russia had 7 battleships at Port Arthur and another enroute , but had 5 modern powerful vessels completing in the Baltic. Japan had 6 first line battleships and two under construction in England.
It was against this background , with neither side willing to give way in what they regarded as their vital spheres of interest , that Japan broke off diplomatic relations with Russia and opened hostilities.