A New Washington Naval Conference for Asia?
Japanese destroyer
Image Credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery via Flickr

A New Washington Naval Conference for Asia?

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Following the end of World War I, Asia was a theater witnessing some worrying developments, particular the rise of Japan and associated tensions. In response, then U.S. President Warren Harding convened a peace conference in Washington, between November 12, 1921 and February 6, 1922, which would later be referred to as the “Washington Naval Conference” or the “Washington Disarmament Conference.”

Nine countries attended: the U.S., Japan, China, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Holland, Portugal and Belgium, but not the USSR. Negotiations were primarily geared towards naval disarmament in the Pacific Ocean and East Asia, and gave way to three major treaties. These treaties helped to curtail the naval buildup in the region for a period and supported a fragile peace throughout the 1920s and 30s, up to their renunciation by Japan in 1936. Although the conference’s outcomes and effectiveness remain the subject of debate, it is nonetheless considered by many a successful milestone in disarmament. Almost a century later, could a modernized version of the Washington Naval Conference be useful, or even necessary, to deal with the competing programs and patterns of naval modernizations being witnessed in the region?

Another Arms Race in Asia?

Since 2000, China’s military spending has grown by 325.5 percent, to reach $166 billion in 2012, according to SIPRI’s estimates. Much of this spending was on the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the reform and modernization of which, begun in the 1980s, accelerated rapidly in the 2000s. The creation of a nuclear submarine base in Sanya, on the island of Hainan, and the commissioning of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, provided powerful symbols of China’s swelling capabilities and ambitions in the maritime domain. Capability development were not limited to the PLAN, however. Maritime and law enforcement agencies, those most active in the territorial disputes that pit China against a number of its neighbors, have also been given greater means, and an enlarged mandate. This simultaneously demonstrates the significance of the maritime domain in Beijing’s plans and strategic outlook, and contributes to the image of a more assertive China. Both elements have a profound impact on its relationship with its neighbors, which are now also committed to military modernization programs.

The balance of power between China and Taiwan is now long gone, and Taipei is no longer seeking any kind of parity, in terms of missiles, aircrafts of tanks, with a continental China whose military budget is eleven times as high as its own. Given the level of forces it continues to amass on its side of the Taiwan Strait, Beijing appears more and more capable of denying the U.S. Navy access to the Strait, especially in the event of a non-pacific reunification with the island. In reaction, despite a more accommodative diplomacy towards Beijing, Taipei is committed to the maintenance of a strong deterrent force, through more asymmetric capabilities (most of them geared towards the maritime domain).

In the East China Sea, the rise of the PLAN constitutes a major issue for South Korea and Japan, two other maritime powers extremely dependent upon their access to the sea for their security and prosperity. The South Korean navy recently went through an important upgrade, with the acquisition and indigenous development of submarine, combat and amphibious capabilities that go far beyond the needs of confronting the North Korean threat.

Japan has also expressed preoccupation at Beijing’s growing military might, labeling China a concern for the international community and the region in 2010. Tokyo shifted the focus of its strategic outlook from the North and the Russian and North Korean threats, where it was traditionally geared, to the South of the archipelago, and the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, where the number of incidents with Chinese ships and aircrafts have skyrocketed since 2010. The Japanese Navy unveiled in August of this year one of the two Izumo-class destroyers it will operate by 2015. Such ships will be the largest Japan has built since World War II.

Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, military spending increased by 62 percent between 2002 and 2012, based on SIPRI’s estimates, and parts of that – at the very least that in Vietnam – can be attributed to the multiplication of incidents in the South China Sea.

Of course,  territorial tensions and China’s naval buildup are far from the whole story; many other factors have to be taking into account in any consideration of military developments in Northeast and Southeast Asia. That shrouds the regional context in even great uncertainty and anxiety. No one country can keep pace with the PLAN expansion. A generalized movement toward the U.S. and – to a lesser extent – other regional powers such as Japan, India or Australia therefore appears to complement the many different and often competing modernization efforts underway in national contexts. And yet, although Washington’s so-called pivot, or rebalancing, has been noticed and welcomed by most regional actors, the U.S. is struggling to reconcile its ambitions and the needs of its Asia-Pacific strategy with budgetary constraints and domestic politics.

Increased competition in the maritime domain, the parallel buildup of naval capabilities by most regional states, the ambiguity surrounding the scope and aims of China’s military modernization process, and the perceptions of threat that can derive from it, all add up to create uncertainty and potential destabilization that demand an international response.

A Cue from the Past

This situation is all the more worrying because there is no international arms limitation regime in the region. Is it possible to prevent regional security dilemmas from spiraling into costly and destabilizing arms races? There is no diplomatic magic formula to adequately address and resolve this question. What is certain though is that international collaboration is essential. To date, multilateral forums such as ASEAN and its offshoots have demonstrated an uneven commitment by regional actors to institution-building and to the multilateral management of security issues.

Is a new version of the Washington Conference therefore possible, or even desirable? Perhaps not. Resistance would certainly be strong. In pursuing such an agenda, the U.S. would appear to be both judge and jury, and a revamped Washington Conference an attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of Asian countries that would also run counter to the ASEAN centrality principle of Southeast Asia. Worse, it could easily be interpreted as part of a China containment strategy.

Nevertheless, conventional wisdom offers little help in tackling the challenges of what are mutually reinforcing processes of military modernization. Is it not time to think again about what should be done, what can be done, and who wants to do what? The results of the Washington Conference, its very limitations and weaknesses as much as its successes, offer a valuable source of information and inspiration.

Bruno Hellendorff is a Research Fellow at GRIP (Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security). Thierry Kellner is a Lecturer at the Department of Political Sciences of ULB (Université Libre de Bruxelles), member of REPI, and Associate Researcher at GRIP and BICCS.

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