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.

Nor is there any force of public opinion or peace movement within China to constrain the nuclear buildup. No free press exists to spur open debate about the strategic wisdom or necessity for acquiring a land-based nuclear force that reaches toward parity with Russia or the United States. At the Washington conference a hundred years ago, a common liberal world view and growing public sentiment against arms spending animated the American, British, and Japanese governments to go to the negotiation table. While liberal domestic political opinion opposed to modernization of the nuclear triad and ballistic missile defenses is a force to be reckoned with today in the United States, no comparable internal pressure pushes China’s authoritarian regime to negotiate.

Not surprisingly, then, Washington’s repeated efforts to engage China in arms control talks have led nowhere. When Harding pitched a conference in Washington to discuss arms control, the British and Japanese governments jumped at the invitation. The Biden administration, like its predecessors, wants to “pursue arms control to reduce the dangers from China’s modern and growing nuclear arsenal.” It would seem, however, that China wants to achieve parity in nuclear weapons with Russia and the United States. If that is Beijing’s aim, arms control has no prospect of achieving worthwhile results before the end of this decade when China’s nuclear arsenal pulls even with the United States. Even then, will China’s rulers be content with nuclear parity, or will they strive for superiority, whatever that might mean in measuring the balance of terror?

The dangerous decade of the 1930s and the breakdown of arms control thus seems a better fit for understanding the strategic predicament that the United States finds itself in today than the period leading up to the Washington Conference. The administration’s nuclear posture review must entertain worst-case scenarios in the face of China’s threatening buildup. China’s refusal to enter arms control negotiations gives President Biden an opportunity to rally domestic political support for modernizing the nuclear triad, strengthening ballistic missile defenses, and developing emerging technologies. Until China’s rulers are convinced that increases in their nuclear forces do not confer a strategic advantage, the United States cannot expect to have the initiative in arms control negotiations that it possessed a hundred years ago in Washington.

John H. Maurer serves as the Alfred Thayer Mahan Distinguished Professor of Sea Power and Grand Strategy at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The views expressed in this article represent those of the author alone

Image: Flickr.