chapter  5
12 Pages

Internationalism in East Asia: The naval armaments limitation system, 1922–39

In late August 1939 the Admiralty in London contemplated the fate of the naval treaties should war with Germany come. Some officials argued that it might be beneficial to retain parts of the system of naval arms control introduced at Washington in 1922, and refined at London in 1930, and then again in 1936. A consensus emerged, ‘Even with the greatest exercise of ingenuity’, the Admiralty concluded, ‘so little could be saved that the only practical course would be to denounce the [Naval] Treaties in toto.’1 In September 1939 the British government formally denounced the naval treaties, and so ended seventeen years of the management of warship construction through international agreements. During the Cold War, the history of the naval treaty system was often told by political scientists as a cautionary tale to highlight the potential benefits of arms control to regulate superpower rivalry, as well as the hazards of trusting totalitarian states to adhere to arms agreements. Echoing the more pessimistic political scientists, historians of the American and British navies often damned the treaties as an exercise in naïve inter-war idealism – forced upon hard-nosed admirals by misguided politicians – that did nothing more than obstruct the growth of their navies in the run up to the Second World War.2 Both of these interpretations of the history of naval arms limitation obscure what made the naval armaments treaties possible in the first place, namely shared interests and common understandings among naval elites about the nature of warfare at sea. This chapter will first set out the common interests and understandings, and second explain why the naval treaty system ultimately broke down. Given the theme of this volume, this chapter will focus exclusively on the Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy, even though the history of naval arms limitation encompasses much more than the Anglo-Japanese naval relationship. Nonetheless, the behaviour of both navies – particularly the ideas, policies and strategies of their leading decision-makers – exemplifies the larger themes that this chapter will explore. Usually one does not think of admirals, whose occupation is to plan, prepare and wage wars at sea, as instinctive internationalists. Naval elites during the inter-war years were distinctly nationalist. Their views of the liberal international order established with the foundation of the League of Nations in 1919, and

buttressed by the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 (the treaty for the ‘renunciation of war as an instrument of policy’), ranged from the sceptical to the downright hostile. Even so, admirals shared something that cut across national and cultural boundaries – a form of naval internationalism. As professionals they had much in common in what they held to be true ‘sea-power’, and what they thought future war at sea would and should be. It was this common starting point – or, to put it another way, common grammar of sea power – that made the inter-war treaty system a workable possibility in the first place. The word ‘system’ is used here to denote something more than a number of actors locked in a competition for power through strategies of ‘self-help’. It is used here much in the same way that Paul Schroeder employs it in his The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848. Schroeder defined an international system as a set of ‘understandings, assumptions, learned skills and responses, rules, norms, procedures that agents acquire and use in pursuing their individual divergent aims within the framework of a shared practice’.3