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The Washington Naval Conference, 1921-1922

Between 1921 and 1922, the world's largest naval powers gathered in Washington for a conference to discuss naval disarmament and ways to relieve growing tensions in East Asia.

In the wake of World War I, leaders in the international community sought to prevent the possibility of another war. Rising Japanese militarism and an international arms race heightened these concerns and policymakers worked to reduce the threat. Senator William E. Borah (R-Idaho) led a Congressional effort to demand that the United States engage its two principle competitors in the naval arms race, Japan and Britain, in negotiations for disarmament.

In 1921, U.S. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes invited nine nations to Washington to discuss naval reductions and the situation in the Far East. Great Britain, Japan, France and Italy were invited to take part in talks on reduction of naval capacity, and Belgium, China, the Netherlands and Portugal were invited to join in discussions on the situation in the Far East. Three major treaties emerged out of the Washington Conference: the Five-Power Treaty, the Four-Power Treaty, and the Nine-Power Treaty.

The Five-Power treaty, signed by the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France and Italy was the cornerstone of the naval disarmament program. It called for each of the countries involved to maintain a set ratio of warship tonnage which allowed the United States and Britain 500,000 tons, Japan 300,000 tons and France and Italy each 175,000 tons. Though Japan preferred that tonnage be allotted at a 10:10:7 ratio, and the U.S. Navy preferred a 10:10:5 ratio, the conference ultimately adopted the 5:5:3 limits. The key reason why the United States and Britain required higher tonnage allowances was because both nations maintained two-ocean navies: they were active in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, with colonial territories scattered around the world. Finally, this agreement called on signatories to stop building capital ships and reduce the size of their navies by scrapping older ships. Though widely regarded as a success, there was some controversy over Article XIX, which recognized the status quo of U.S., British and Japanese bases in the Pacific but outlawed their expansion. Many members of the U.S. Navy in particular worried that limiting the expansion of Pacific fortifications would endanger American holdings in the Philippines, Guam and Hawaii.

Although the Five-Power Treaty controlled tonnage of each navy's warships, some classes of ships were left unrestricted. As a result, a new race to build cruiser ships emerged after 1922, leading the powers back to the negotiating table in 1927 and 1930 to close the remaining loopholes in the agreements.

In the Four-Power Treaty, the United States, France, Britain, and Japan agreed to consult with each other in the event of a future crisis in East Asia before taking action. This treaty replaced the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1902, which had been a source of some concern for the United States. In the years following World War I, U.S. policymakers saw Japan as the greatest rising military threat. Heavily militarized and looking to expand its influence and territory, Japan had the potential to threaten U.S. colonial possessions in Asia and the profitable China trade. Because of the 1902 agreement between Britain and Japan, however, if the United States and Japan entered into a conflict, Britain might be obligated to join Japan against the United States. By ending that treaty and creating a Four-Power agreement, the countries involved ensured that none would be obligated to engage in a conflict, but a mechanism would exist for discussions if one emerged.

The final multilateral agreement made at the Washington Naval Conference was the Nine-Power Treaty, which marked the internationalization of the U.S. Open Door Policy in China. The treaty promised that each of the signatories—the United States, Britain, Japan, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and China—would respect the territorial integrity of China. The treaty recognized Japanese dominance in Manchuria but otherwise affirmed the importance of equal opportunity for all nations doing business in the country; for its part, China promised not to discriminate against any country seeking to do business there. Like the Four-Power Treaty, the treaty on China called for consultations in the event of a violation instead of tying the signatories to a particular response. As a result, it lacked a method of enforcement to ensure that all powers abided by its terms.

In addition to the multilateral agreements, several bilateral treaties were completed at the conference. Japan and China also signed a bilateral agreement, the Shangtung (Shandong) Treaty, which returned control of that province and its railroad to China. Japan had taken control of the area from the Germans during World War I, and then it maintained control over the years that followed. The combination of the Shangtung Treaty and the Nine-Power Treaty was meant to reassure China that its territory would not be further compromised by Japanese expansion. Additionally, Japan agreed to withdraw its troops from Siberia and the United States and Japan formed agreement over equal access to cable and radio facilities on the Japanese-controlled island of Yap.

Together, the treaties signed at the Washington Conference served to uphold the status quo in the Pacific: they recognized existing interests and did not make fundamental changes to them. At the same time, the United States secured agreements that reinforced its existing policy in the Pacific, including the Open Door in China and the protection of the Philippines, while limiting the scope of Japanese imperial expansion as much as possible.


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