1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Washington Conference

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WASHINGTON CONFERENCE, 1921.—Preliminary invitations to a conference at Washington on the limitation of national armament were issued by President Harding on July 10 1921 to Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. On Aug. 11 formal invitations were sent to these Powers, to China, and later to Belgium, the Netherlands, and Portugal, President Harding having been authorized by Congress, in an amendment to the Naval Appropriations bill signed July 11 1921, to arrange for the Conference. The President made it plain that he regarded disarmament questions as closely linked with the Pacific and Far Eastern problems. As American delegates Mr. Harding designated Secretary of State Hughes, Elihu Root, Senators Lodge and Underwood; the British Empire was represented by Mr. Balfour, Lord Lee of Fareham, Sir Auckland Geddes and Sir Robert Borden, as principal delegates; France by Premier Briand, M. Viviani, M. Sarraut, and M. Jusserand; Italy by Sig. Schanzer and Sig. Ricci; Japan by Prince Tokugawa, Admiral Kato, and Ambassador Shidehara; China by Mr. Wellington Koo and Mr. Sze.

The Conference assembled Nov. 12 1921, was addressed by Mr. Harding, and elected Mr. Hughes as its chairman. The latter at once placed the American proposals on naval disarmament before the gathering; they were so precise and far-reaching as to cause general surprise. Reviewing the failure of previous attempts at disarmament and emphasizing the existing opportunity, Mr. Hughes proposed that there should be a naval “holiday”: “for a period of not less than 10 years there shall be no further construction of capital ships.” He then presented a definite plan for the scrapping of certain of the older capital ships and of capital ships under construction, and the restriction of capital ship replacements by an agreed maximum of tonnage, as follows: — for the United States and Great Britain 500,000 tons each, for Japan 300,000 tons — a “5-5-3” ratio. Discussion of the tonnage allowance for France and Italy was reserved for later consideration. The directness with which Mr. Hughes stated his case struck a note which evoked hearty response from the delegates and the public, and he was at once supported by the British delegation. “We can no longer content ourselves,” Mr. Hughes said, “with investigations, with statistics, with reports, with the circumlocution of inquiry. . . . The world wants a practical programme which shall at once be put into execution.” At the second plenary conference, held Nov. 15, the representatives of France, Japan, and Italy also accepted the principles of the Hughes proposals, leaving the technical details for consideration by the experts.

In the plenary session of Nov. 21 the subject of military armament was introduced by Mr. Hughes, who said that the United States had followed its traditional policy of reducing its own regular military establishment to the smallest possible basis. He recognized, however, the special difficulties existing in Europe. M. Briand explained the attitude of France as based on her need for security in Europe; expressing the readiness of his country to take any steps necessary to ensure peace, he emphasized the necessity of a genuine atmosphere of peace, a “moral disarmament,” before physical disarmament could be attempted. This atmosphere, he maintained, was lacking — chiefly because of what France regarded as the warlike attitude of Germany, the carefully maintained system which made it possible for her suddenly to convert a huge number of “civilians” into troops, and the availability of her war industries. France, he claimed, had already reduced her army by a third and was planning to reduce it by a half. Complete demobilization, however, was impossible for her under the conditions existing in Germany and Russia. M. Briand concluded with an appeal for the moral support of France by other nations, and this evoked a sympathetic response from the other delegates. Sig. Schanzer of Italy, however, made plain the desire of his country that “the general limitation of land armaments may become a reality within the shortest space of time.” The result of the attitude of France was to establish the impracticability of discussing any definite plan for the limitation of armies. A sub-committee was appointed, however, to consider the questions of air-craft, poison gases, and the rules for the conduct of war.

The agenda of the Conference were dealt with by two committees of the whole, one composed of the delegates of the five principal Powers to deal with limitation of armament, the other, composed of delegates of all nine Powers, including China, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Portugal, to deal with matters affecting the Pacific and the Far East.

Meetings of these committees and their sub-committees, beginning with their first sessions, Nov. 14 and 15, were held in the Pan-American Building and were not open to the public. Lengthy communiqués were published on the progress of the discussions, and their results were reported formally at the open plenary sessions, of which six were held. The decisions reached were in regard to navies, including submarines; poison gases; the Pacific Ocean and its islands; and Chinese affairs.


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The committee on armament discussed fully the maximum tonnage and ratio of capital ships to which each Power should restrict itself; and on Dec. 20 a provisional agreement was reached. Japan maintained (Dec. 20) that 60 per cent of the quota proposed for the United States and Great Britain — on the 5-5-3 plan — was insufficient for her defensive needs, and asked that it be increased to 70 per cent; her delegates were especially unwilling to sacrifice the “Mutsu,” a new capital ship (in large measure paid for by popular subscription) which, under the Hughes plan, would have to be scrapped. This obstacle was overcome by permitting Japan to retain the “Mutsu,” on condition that an older ship, the “Setsu,” should be scrapped. This change gave Japan two post-Jutland ships and an increased capital-ship tonnage, to offset which it was agreed that the United States should complete two ships still in process of construction, and that Great Britain should construct two new vessels not to exceed 35,000 tons each. In replacement tonnage the ratio was to stand thus: United States and Great Britain 525,000 tons each, and Japan 315,000 tons — a ratio of 5-5-3. This agreement was stated to be contingent upon a suitable arrangement for France and Italy, who had been offered a replacement tonnage of 175,000 each. But M. Sarraut, representing France, held out for an aggregate of 350,000 tons, to be constructed on a replacement basis from 1925 onwards. The controversy was finally laid before M. Briand, who had returned to France; he agreed to accept for France the capital-ship ratio of 1.75 as against 1.60 for the United Slates and for Great Britain, but made his consent conditional on the obtaining of a larger proportion of auxiliary craft and submarines, which were regarded by France as purely defensive weapons. “The idea which dominates the Washington Conference,” he telegraphed, “is to restrict naval armaments which are offensive and costly. But I do not believe that it is the programme to deny to a nation like France, which has a large extent of coasts and a great number of distant colonies, the means of defending its communications and its security.”

The French reply settled the problem of capital ships, but a warm controversy was provoked over submarines, Mr. Balfour, on behalf of the British delegation, proposing the complete abolition of the submarine, on the ground that it was an inhuman agent of warfare, effective only in illegal attacks upon commerce. Mr. Hughes proposed a reduction of submarine tonnage for the United States and Great Britain to 60,000 apiece, and approximately the status quo for France, Japan, and Italy (31,500 for the first two, 21,000 tons for the last). But the French delegates refused to accept less than 90,000 tons for submarines and 330,000 for cruisers and auxiliary craft. Mr. Balfour then made it plain that, failing action against the submarine itself, Great Britain could accept no limitation for anti-submarine craft.

As a result, the treaty, as finally agreed upon by the five major Powers, did not include limitation of total tonnage of submarine or auxiliary craft. Limits, however, were placed upon the total tonnage of aircraft carriers and upon individual tonnage of capital ships and cruisers, as well as upon the calibre of guns carried.

The failure of the British attempt to abolish the submarine was mitigated by the passage of a series of resolutions presented by Mr. Root and later embodied in a treaty. As accepted, they stated the rules of international law as to “visit and search” on the high seas, and declared that belligerent submarines are not exempt from these rules. They invited the adherence of all civilized Powers to this statement. In the third place, they recognized that the use of submarines as commerce destroyers was practically impossible without violation of these rules, and that prohibition of such use should be accepted as a law of nations; they declared the assent of the contracting Powers to such prohibition and invited that of all other nations. No definition of a merchant ship was adopted. In the fourth place, they declared that commanders of all ships transgressing international rules should be subject to punishment for piracy. Aircraft limitation was rejected by the Conference, after a technical report of the sub-committee had declared limitation to be impracticable, but an inquiry commission was appointed. The abolition of the use of poison gas in international warfare, on the other hand, was advocated by the Naval Committee Jan. 7 1922, on the motion of Mr. Hughes, and prohibition of poison gas was embodied in a treaty.

In respect of the problems of the Pacific one of the most important accomplishments of the Conference was the drafting of a new treaty, presented at the plenary session Dec. 10 1921, between the United States, Great Britain, France and Japan. It pledged each to respect the rights of the others in relation to their insular possessions and insular dominions in the Pacific, to accept mediation in case of controversy over these possessions, and to open frank discussions if their rights were threatened by any other Power. The treaty was to remain in force for 10 years, and upon its ratification the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was automatically to be terminated. A reservation accompanied the treaty embodying provisions to the effect that it should not be deemed an assent on the part of the United States to “mandates” granted in the Pacific under the Peace Treaty of Versailles, and should not preclude agreements relative to mandated islands.

The reservation also excepted from arbitrable controversies questions lying within the domestic jurisdiction of the contracting Powers. To the treaty was later appended also a second agreement, defining the phrase “insular possessions and insular dominions” in such a way as to exclude Japan proper from its scope. The representatives of the United States and Japan also signed a treaty regarding Yap, according to which the United States was to have free access there on a footing of entire equality with Japan in all that related to cable and radio service, and received certain privileges and exemptions in relation to electrical communications. Subject to various conditions the United States consented to the administration by Japan of the mandated islands in the Pacific north of the equator.

Chinese problems were presented Nov. 16 1921 by Mr. Sze in the form of ten points, which the Conference was asked to adopt. They called for recognition of the territorial integrity and political and administrative independence of China, the “open door” neutrality, and the complete removal of all political, jurisdictional, and administrative restrictions upon the Chinese Republic.

The general attitude of the Conference towards China was crystallized Nov. 21, when four resolutions presented by Mr. Root were adopted. They declared the intention of the Powers' to respect the sovereignty, the independence, and the territorial and administrative integrity of China, their desire to maintain the principle of equal opportunity for the commerce and industry of all nations, and their agreement not to seek special rights or privileges. Details of specific arrangements to be enforced led to long discussions. A resolution was adopted (Dec. 24) providing for the voluntary withdrawal of foreign post offices from China Jan. 1 1923, on condition that China should maintain efficient service and continue the supervision of the foreign co-director general. The problem of extra-territorial rights could not be settled definitely, but it was referred to an international committee for intensive study and report within a year. The demand for the withdrawal of foreign troops from China was referred to a sub-committee, and finally it was agreed that, while the principle of withdrawal was accepted, the issues raised should be made the subject of inquiry, in order to determine the conditions upon which withdrawal must depend. On the other hand the Powers passed a resolution urging China to reduce the large military forces maintained by the military governors. The relinquishment of foreign leaseholds in China was not actually secured (though Great Britain announced her readiness in this respect if other countries would join her); but China's fight for “open diplomacy” was virtually won when a resolution was passed (Dec. 8) pledging the nine Powers not to enter into any agreement that might impair the force of the four Root resolutions. As regards the customs tariffs, the demand for China for complete autonomy was not granted, nor the request made, in view of the nation's financial necessities, that her quota be raised from 5% to 12½%. It was decided, however, that China's customs revenue should be increased by $46,000,000 silver annually, through an advance to 5% effective, a surtax of 2½%, and a surtax not exceeding 5% on luxuries. Other resolutions included agreements that foreign radio stations should transmit only Government messages, that there should be no unfair discrimination in railway rates, an expression of hope that the railway system might be unified under Chinese Government control, and an agreement for the establishment of a Board of Reference for Far Eastern Questions.

The question of the Japanese occupation of Shantung entailed long negotiations, which at times seemed dead-locked, especially those relating to the Tsing-tao-Tsinan-fu railway. Largely through the mediation of Mr. Hughes and Mr. Balfour a separate agreement was finally reached between Japan and China and signed Feb. 4. It provided for the return to China of the former German leasehold and 50-km. zone in Shantung, and the withdrawal of Japanese troops and gendarmes; China was to purchase the Tsinan-fu railway for $30,000,000, but, before complete redemption, there were to be appointed a Japanese traffic manager subject to the direction of the Chinese managing director, a Japanese accountant, and a Chinese accountant of equal rank. Japan renounced all rights to foreign assistance stipulated in the Chinese-German Treaty of 1898, and relinquished the maritime customs at Tsing-tao and former German public properties. As to Siberian problems, Baron Shidehara made a full statement to the effect that it was “the fixed and settled policy” of Japan to respect the territorial integrity of Russia, and to observe the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of that country, as well as the principle of equal opportunity for the commerce and industry of all nations.

The decisions taken by the Conference were embodied in seven treaties and various supplementary resolutions. (1) Five-Power Naval Treaty, designating specifically the capital ships to be retained by each of the contracting Powers and determining the ratio of capital ship replacement: 525,000 tons for the United States and Great Britain, 315,000 tons for Japan, 175,000 tons for France and Italy each — or 5-5-3-1.66. This treaty also limited the tonnage of individual capital ships to 35,000 and the calibre of guns to 16 inches; individual cruisers were limited to 10,000 tons and their guns to 8-in. calibre. Aircraft carriers were limited in general to an individual tonnage of 27,000, with a total tonnage of 135,000 for the United States and Great Britain, 81,000 for Japan, 60,000 for France and Italy each. With certain exceptions, the status quo was to be maintained with regard to fortifications and naval bases in the Pacific. (2) Five-Power Treaty Relating to the Use of Submarines and Noxious Cases in Warfare, embodying the resolutions described above. Accompanying these treaties were two resolutions for a commission of jurists to consider amendment of the laws of war and limitation of their jurisdiction. (3) Four-Power Treaty, between the United States, Great Britain, Trance, and Japan, relating to insular possessions and insular dominions in the Pacific, accompanied by the declaration of the United States. (4) Four-Power Treaty, between the same Powers, relating to the foregoing, and defining “insular” so as to exclude Japan proper from its scope. (5) Nine-Power Treaty, relating to principles and policies to be followed in matters concerning China, as described above. This was supplemented by ten resolutions embodying the decisions taken as to a Board of Reference, extra-territoriality, foreign postal agencies, foreign armed forces, unification of railways, Chinese military forces, existing commitments of China or with respect to China, the Chinese Eastern Railway. The treaty embodied the Root resolutions as its Article I, and strongly emphasized the principles of the “open door.” (6) Nine-Power Treaty, relating to Chinese customs tariffs. (7) Chinese-Japanese Treaty, regarding Shantung. Two other treaties connected with the work of the Conference were: United States-Japanese Treaty, regarding Yap; and the Six-Power Treaty, allocating German cables in the Pacific. The Conference on Limitation of Armament was formally terminated Feb. 6 1922. On March 1 the U. S. Senate ratified, by a vote of 67 to 22, the treaty with Japan regarding Yap. (C. Sey.)