The Washington Conference 100 Years Later: Averting Great-Power Conflict in Asia

The Washington Conference 100 Years Later: Averting Great-Power Conflict in Asia

The world's leading powers agreed to limit a naval arms race in 1921 at the United States’ urging. Lessons from the Washington Naval Conference are still relevant as the United States and China face a potential new arms race today.

Harding’s call for a conference in Washington provided Japan with an opportunity to gain the security at sea that they sought without having to go to the great expense of building a new generation of capital ships. At the beginning of the conference, the Japanese delegates declared: “Japan desires to cooperate with other powers to escape the burden of defense that stifles our industry. On arms reductions, which is a just policy that will eliminate [great power] misunderstanding of Japan and guarantee our security.” By stopping the American naval construction in negotiations, Japan would gain a strategic edge. In negotiations, Katō maintained: “Avoidance of war with America through diplomatic means constitutes the essence of national defense.” If only future Japanese naval and military leaders had held to Katō’s wise counsel, then Japan and the United States would have avoided the clash of arms a generation later.

The government of Takahashi Korekiyo, Japan’s finance minister who became prime minister after an ultranationalist assassinated Hara Takashi, welcomed the negotiated settlement achieved in Washington. Takahashi advocated a foreign policy of collaboration with Britain and the United States, and for Japan to exercise restraint in its dealings with China. Arms control would enable him to reduce the budget of the armed services, thus freeing up resources for what he considered more productive spending on infrastructure improvements and education. “Because of the economic situation,” Takahashi maintained, “we must control the expansion of government expenditures. We must be frugal where we can be frugal.” The Washington Conference enabled him to advance his foreign policy and economic agenda. “Because of the Washington Conference,” he told the Japanese Diet, “we can reduce military expenditures and have a little surplus for the future.” Takahashi wanted to enhance Japan’s power and standing by acting as what our age would call a responsible stakeholder, who would benefit economically by cooperating to uphold the peace in Asia and the Pacific.

The Art of the Deal

While Hughes jumpstarted the negotiations, achieving an arms control agreement in Washington entailed hard bargaining. Katō wanted to keep the Japanese navy as strong as possible relative to the United States. Japanese naval planners demanded that their battle fleet acquire at least 70 percent of the strength of the United States Navy. American naval planners opposed the Japanese demand: they insisted that Japan’s force of capital ships would amount to no more than 60 percent of the United States. To break the deadlock, Katō agreed to the ratio of strength fixed by the American side, but he wanted something in return. To accept an inferior ratio in naval strength, he asked for Britain and the United States to limit the defenses protecting their forward bases in the Western Pacific. By imposing restrictions on the fortification of forward bases, Britain and the United States would have difficulty projecting naval power into the region during the initial stages of a conflict with Japan. Hughes accepted this tradeoff because he believed (quite rightly) that Congress would refuse to fund in peacetime the development of major bases in Guam and the Philippines required for the forward deployment of American naval power. The net strategic result of this tradeoff was to accord naval dominance in the Western Pacific to Japan. Despite the inferior ratio in battle-fleet strength—a minimum deterrent—Japan emerged from the Washington Conference in a strong strategic position.

That the United States succeeded in getting the other great powers to reach an agreement in Washington was due in part to the American invitation coming at the right moment. The workings of democracy, along with the liberal world view held by the leaders of the great powers, set the stage for an international agreement. In Washington, the negotiations built on the plan presented on the opening day by Hughes. While Hughes’ plan was modified during the talks, an agreement emerged that reflected the willingness of leaders to curb spending on weaponry and to show restraint in their foreign policy ambitions. Lord Balfour, the leader of the British delegation, claimed the conference “has been of absolute unmixed benefit to mankind.”

Farewell to Arms Control—Part One

The Washington Conference, however, turned out to be but a truce in the competition for naval mastery in the Pacific. A return to great power competition during the 1930s ended the treaty framework for international cooperation and security in Asia that came out of Washington. Only twenty years would elapse between the fanfare inaugurating the Washington Conference and the opening shots fired by Japanese aircraft attacking forward-deployed American and British naval forces in the Pacific. The battleships regulated by the arms control regime negotiated in Washington became the main targets struck by Japanese aircraft at the war’s beginning.

Although Japan derived important strategic benefits from arms control, the leaders of the Japanese navy did not see it that way. They objected to treaty restrictions that stood in the way of their demands for naval buildup. They wanted an arms race. The famous Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the strategic architect of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, believed that American and British leaders only respected Japan’s “mighty empire rising in the east” because of the country’s growing armed strength. Yamamoto foresaw that “the day may not be so distant when we shall have Britain and the United States kowtowing to us. For the navy, the most urgent task of all is to make rapid strides in the field of aviation.”

While Yamamoto favored building up Japan’s naval air power, the navy brass sought to break out of the arms control framework established at Washington by constructing the Yamato-class battleships. These monster battleships were built in great secrecy to prevent American and British intelligence from knowing their firepower and armor strength. When these battleships joined the fleet in the early 1940s, they were the most powerful in the world.

Meanwhile, those voices in Japan who called for restraint in spending on the armed services were silenced. Takahashi, again serving as finance minister, opposed large increases in spending that the leaders of the armed services demanded, as he had in 1921. In a newspaper interview, he stated that, even if Japan refused to be bound by arms control restrictions, he would continue to resist increased naval spending. He viewed a policy of confrontation with Britain, China, and the United States as utter folly. Japan did not have the economic strength to achieve the imperial dreams that beguiled nationalist extremists. Takahashi’s determined opposition led to his murder during the military uprising of February 26, 1936, when rebellious soldiers broke into his house and killed the elderly statesman while sleeping in his bed. Takahashi’s fate symbolizes the end of the sober judgment exercised by Japan’s leaders who sought security through cooperation with Britain and the United States at Washington. Instead, Japanese militarists and nationalist leaders, possessed by dreams of empire, took control and led Japan to war.

Farewell to Arms Control—Part Two

At a time when American power and purpose in the world is increasingly questioned, the story of the Washington Conference deserves to be remembered because it shows how great powers can cooperate to provide for their security. The United States took the initiative in calling the conference, and its success owed much to the skill and determination of American leaders. Washington could exercise this leadership role because it was backed up by the hard reality of America’s growing economic and naval power. Adam Tooze has noted that “Since the beginning of the nineteenth century the British Empire had been the largest economic unit in the world. Sometime in 1916, the year of Verdun and the Somme, the combined output of the British Empire was overtaken by that of the United States of America.” Perhaps that moment arrived on August 29, 1916, when the so-called Big Navy Act was signed into law by President Wilson. Economic and naval ascendency went hand in hand. The United States possessed the big stick of a naval modernization effort that other countries wanted to limit. British and Japanese leaders had no stomach for a high-stakes contest for naval mastery against the United States. They preferred negotiation to a head-to-head arms race with the United States and feared the consequences if the talks broke down. Alienating Washington might also curtail American support for reviving the international economy.

Today, the prospects for arms control are far less favorable for American leadership. The United States is now involved in a three-way nuclear competition with China and Russia that is much different from the experience of the Cold War. American aims in Asia now stand threatened by the foreign policy ambitions of China’s leaders and an across-the-board buildup of the Chinese armed forces. Projected increases in China’s intercontinental ballistic missile force in land-based silos have exceeded previous American estimates. A report by the Federation of American Scientists concludes: “With approximately 300 apparent silos under construction—a number that exceeds the number of ICBM silos operated by Russia—and an additional 100-plus road-mobile ICBM launchers, China’s total ICBM force could potentially exceed that of either Russia and the United States in the foreseeable future.” The lack of transparency on Chinese decisions about nuclear weapons resembles Japan’s attempts to conceal its capital ship construction during the late 1930s and the increase in Soviet ICBMs that confounded Robert McNamara’s Pentagon during the 1960s. The growing ICBM force will provide Chinese nuclear target planners with an enhanced capability to execute first strikes in wartime. Like Japan during the 1930s, China is no longer content to possess a minimum deterrent force.