Note: This is a work in progress, and one I am not likely to finish (short of receiving a grant or an offer from a larger publisher) for some time. Everything posted here should be considered a draft. [Main Page, U.S. War Against Asia]
After some initial English failures, Jamestown, Virginia was founded in 1607 by the Virginia Company, a for-profit stock company chartered by the King. Plymouth, Massachusetts was founded by a Protestant Christian sect in 1620. By then many Asian ports were already trading directly with, and sometimes were under the control of, the European powers. The Portuguese had grabbed Goa in 1510 as part of their plan to capture the spice trade [A History of India, Percival Spear, Vol 2, p. 62]; they also grabbed Ormus on the Persian Gulf, Diu in India, Malacca in Indochina, and Macau in China. Some Portuguese were blown off-course to Japan in 1542. A purposeful trading visit there was made in 1549 [Storry, History of Modern Japan, p. 44]
The Dutch began trading with Asia in 1595, grabbing Jakarta (from the Portuguese) and creating a string of trading posts on the Indian Ocean. The English, having already succeeded with piracy, formed the East India Company in 1600, but had little initial success competing with the Dutch. They focused on trade with India since they were not strong enough to break the Dutch monopoly on spice island trade. The French came late to the India game in 1664 [Spear, V2 p 65-68].
So the expansion of the English settlers into the American Indian territories of the future United States was part of a global process that involved piracy, trade, conquest, and sometimes colonization. The Dutch, Swedes and French also established, for a time, colonies in what would be the United States or Canada.
Shipbuilding began in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600's [Bailey, p25]. Trade with Asia, though technically British due to Mercantile laws, took place to varying degrees in the 1600s and 1700s, though it was not nearly as important as the trade in slaves, molasses, and rum. While the ships were British, it is likely that some of the sailors were born in the Americas or became colonists after their naval days. Primitive as the colonies may now seem, in the 1600's American colonists knew the world was round and that certain goods game from China and other points in Asia. Tea from India became the non-alcoholic drink of choice; the tea of the Boston Tea Party was provided by the British East India Company.
After the Revolution traders found that Great Britain blocked much of their traditional trade. They smuggled what they could to and from Europe and the Caribbean. They continued the slave trade. And they found new markets: one of them was China. The Chinese were happy to trade with Americans who brought gold (obtained from the Spanish American colonies), ginseng and furs. The ships returned to America with tea, porcelain, silk and furniture. Merchants at both ends of the trade were happy with the profits they made [Oxford p 284].
The Opium War had its origins in a 1796 Chinese law that banned the importation of opium. The drug was produced in India as a British monopoly. British ships continued to smuggle the drug into China. In 1839 the Chinese government seized British opium in Canton and burned it. The British declared war and defeated the Chinese, who were compelled to legalize its importation. In addition the British obtained treaty rights to trade in a number of Chinese ports. [1902 Encycl] Their trade threatened, the New England traders got the U.S. government to negotiate its first treaty with China in 1844. Americans were given access to ports already open to European traders.
1839 also marked the official extension of American use of naval violence to Asia with the Sumatra Raids [See for instance, a biography of Thomas Turner].
Meanwhile Japan had been closed to foreign trade with the exception of the port of Nagasaki, where only the Dutch and Chinese were allowed to trade. The Japanese were aware that other Asian nations had been bullied and exploited by the European powers; they had their own bad experiences with the Portuguese to remember.
In 1846 the dispute between Great Britain and the United States over the Oregon territory was settled by giving the U.S. the land south of the 49th parallel, comprising the current states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Suddenly the U.S.A. was a Pacific power. That same year the U.S. provoked a war with Mexico and won it. So in 1848 the entire U.S. southwest was annexed, adding California as a Pacific territory.
Americans had marched across a vast continent, killing the natives and grabbing all that was of value. No one saw any reason to stop expanding. Canada, which had been the objective of the 1812 war, was available to the north, but Great Britain was strong. Mexico and Cuba held allure to the south.
To the west lay the Pacific islands, China, and more. Greedy eyes began coveting them before the ink was even dry on the treaty ending the Mexican American war.
In 1848 Japan was an independent nation. The Philippines were a Spanish colony. The British controlled India, Australia, New Zealand and more. The Dutch owned much of Indonesia. The French would invade Indochina in 1858. And though officially independent, China was weak and torn by internal troubles.
The Americans first move would be against Japan.
[Main Page, U.S. War Against Asia]