THE problem of naval bases in the Pacific assumed new significance from the beginning of the present year, for that was the date when the political and naval agreements concluded at the Washington Conference in 1922 formally terminated. The three outstanding achievements of the Washington Conference were the Nine Power Treaty; the acceptance of a 5:5:3 ratio for capital ships by the three leading naval Powers, the United States, Great Britain and Japan; and the adoption of a self-denying ordinance in the matter of the construction of new bases and new fortifications in certain of the Pacific possessions of the three nations in question.

All these achievements are now of purely historical interest. The Nine Power Treaty, under which all Powers with Pacific interests except the Soviet Union (then unrecognized by most of the large countries) agreed to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China, was to all intents and purposes set aside by Japan's action in occupying Manchuria in 1931 and 1932 in the face of condemnation by the League of Nations and protests by the United States. In addition, Japan, through its Foreign Office spokesman, has put forward a claim to a preëminent position vis-à-vis China, with the right to veto any loans offered China by other countries which it might regard as "political." Such a claim is scarcely compatible with the coöperative régime envisaged at Washington. As neither China nor the Western Powers recognized it as valid, a note of uncertainty and instability has been introduced into Far Eastern international relations.

The Washington naval agreements have now gone the way of the political. Japan gave the prescribed two years' notice of denunciation of the Naval Treaty on December 29, 1934. Neither the conversations which took place in London toward the end of 1934 nor the conference which was held there a year later could find any formula of adjustment between the Japanese demand for full parity of naval strength with Great Britain and America and the unwillingness of the latter Powers to accept such a drastic modification of the Washington ratio. Several factors tended to make the Japanese representatives unyielding on the question of parity. The issue had become one of prestige; navalist agitation in Japan represented the lower ratio as a stigma of inferiority. Japan's continental responsibilities and risks had become greater as a result of the establishment of Manchukuo and the "forward policy" which was being inaugurated in North China. Another point stressed by Japanese naval experts with whom I have discussed the question is the enlarged cruising radius of warships and the greatly increased speed and efficiency of land and naval aircraft. These changes, it is argued, deprive Japan of the degree of security which the Washington ratio provided in 1922.

It is unlikely that Japan intends to utilize its new freedom in naval construction for the purpose of endeavoring to match the American or British navies keel for keel. There are formidable budgetary objections to any such attempt, especially at a time when the Army is absorbing some two billion yen of appropriations for a six-year plan designed primarily to strengthen its aviation and mechanized branches. Japanese admirals have always chafed under the category limitations which were laid down at Washington. What they welcome is the ability to build as many ships as they choose of any given type. Japanese strategic plans in the event of a Pacific war do not contemplate long-distance operations, with their battle fleet steaming thousands of miles away from its home bases to attack the American coasts. What is rather foreseen is the adoption of defensive tactics, in which relatively small swift ships -- cruisers, destroyers and submarines -- taking advantage of Japan's fringe of islands, can, it is believed, hold at bay and repulse an American or British naval force compelled to fight at immense distances from its bases.

Bases, it should be noted, are of equal value with ships in modern naval warfare, especially when the potential theatre of hostilities is as wide as the Pacific Ocean. The strongest navy in the world is seriously crippled as regards offensive striking power if it is obliged to sail many thousands of miles to attack its opponent, with no base on the route at which it can put in for refueling, repairs and general overhauling. Indeed, in some respects bases are more important than the actual numbers of ships of the line. Japan would probably view with more alarm and resentment the construction of a powerful American naval base in the Philippines or in Guam, which the well-known British naval critic Hector Bywater has described as the key to the Western Pacific, than the starting of work on several new battleships or heavy cruisers.

At Washington the three leading naval Powers agreed to forego the further fortification of certain Pacific possessions. In the case of the United States, these were the Aleutian Islands, the Philippines, Guam, Wake and Samoa; for Great Britain, they were Hong Kong and its South Sea Islands; for Japan, they were the Kuriles to the north and, to the south, Formosa, the Lu Chu and Bonin Islands, and the widely scattered groups of the Caroline, Marshall and Marianne Islands, former German possessions held by Japan under League mandate.

This agreement undoubtedly served to diminish the likelihood of an armed clash in the Pacific. In this respect it has operated in much the same fashion as wide demilitarized zones would along the frontiers of two land Powers. If the Aleutian and Kurile Islands bristled respectively with American and Japanese naval, air and submarine bases, the resultant tension, mutual fear and suspicion would inevitably be enhanced.

From a technical naval standpoint, the agreement not to construct naval bases has represented a greater sacrifice for the United States than for Japan. A Japanese naval base in Formosa would not increase the likelihood (not very great, in any case) of a Japanese attack on California or Hawaii. Bases in Formosa and in the Mandated Islands would, indeed, tighten the Japanese pincers about the Philippine Islands. But most American military and naval writers are in any event inclined to write off the Philippines as a certain Japanese conquest in the early stages of hostilities. On the other hand, an American naval base in Guam on the scale of Pearl Harbor (our Hawaiian base) or Singapore, and less than 1,500 miles from Yokohama, would not unnaturally be regarded in Japan as a direct menace to the Empire. Guam's high strategic importance is appraised as follows in a recent study of the strategy of a theoretical Japanese-American war:

The nerve center of the Japanese Empire and its life-lines to Asia and the south, our objectives, are well within reach from Guam, and we could ask nothing better than to see our fleet established there with its chain of communications running to Pearl Harbor and the United States by way of Wake Island-Midway or (better yet) by way of the Carolines, the Marshalls, and Pearl Harbor.[i]

The Aleutian Islands are also of potential value to the United States. Attu, the westernmost of them, is only 800 miles from the nearest Japanese possession and about 2,000 miles from Yokohama. A heavily fortified, well-equipped naval base at Dutch Harbor or at some other point in the Aleutians would appreciably increase American offensive naval power in the North Pacific.

The Philippines at the present time are protected against external aggression by potential American strength rather than by the forces actually stationed there. The American military establishment in the Philippines consists of about 4,000 American troops and 6,000 Philippine Scouts, the latter a Filipino force which is enrolled in the American Army. The American Asiatic Squadron, consisting of the flagship cruiser Augusta, thirteen destroyers and twelve submarines, with a few auxiliary vessels, is regularly at Cavite, the naval station on Manila Bay, during the winter months. During the summer the submarines and destroyers go to the North China ports, Chefoo and Tsingtao, for exercises and manœuvres. The Cavite navy yard is equipped for handling only small vessels; in fact, there are no facilities for docking large warships west of Pearl Harbor.

The American agreement to abstain from fortifying the Aleutians and Guam and to construct no new fortifications in the Philippines was a substantial concession to Japan's security and doubtless helped largely to win Japanese consent to the establishment of the 5:5:3 naval ratio. It meant that the United States voluntarily renounced certain strategic advantages of its Pacific possessions. It meant that, in the event of an American-Japanese conflict, the United States, unless it were acting in alliance or agreement with some other Power with oriental bases, would be severely handicapped in striking directly at its enemy.

In the latter part of 1936 Great Britain launched a trial balloon in the shape of a proposal that the agreement restricting bases and fortifications should remain in force after the lapse of the other provisions of the Treaty. The suggestion was coldly received in Washington and does not seem likely to bear practical fruit until and unless some new basis of understanding among the Pacific powers is attained. The American view is that the self-denying arrangement regarding naval bases was an integral part of the broad political settlement effected in the other Washington treaties and that there is no reason to retain this single feature when the rest of the arrangement has been scrapped.

What prompted Great Britain to make such a proposal? Several reasons are possible, alone or in combination. The British Foreign Office has always contained officials who favor avoiding a breach with Japan at all costs, and who wish Britain to hold a mediating position as between Japan and the United States. A proposal that would operate to the strategic advantage of Japan as against the United States might therefore be evaluated in Tokyo as a concession to the Japanese viewpoint, calculated to offset the effect of Great Britain's virtual alignment with the United States in rejecting the Japanese claim for parity.

A consideration of a quite different character also probably helped inspire the British move. Great Britain is bound to react sensitively to any southward advance of Japanese naval striking power. British interests in the South Pacific are numerous, important and varied. There lie the vital lines of communication with the dominions of the southern hemisphere, Australia and New Zealand. There lies the rich colony and protectorate of Malaya, which produces about 45 percent of the world's rubber and about 30 percent of the world's tin. There lies the vast and fertile tropical archipelago of the Dutch East Indies, against which any attack would be regarded in London as very nearly equivalent to an attack on the British Empire itself. From the British standpoint, then, the continuation of the present arrangement, under which Japan is precluded from creating any new naval base in Formosa or in the South Sea Islands, would be an eminently desirable objective. This is especially true because of the virtual completion of the mighty British base at Singapore, which has very great political as well as naval significance.[ii] With a powerful modern base at Singapore and an advanced outpost at Hong Kong, Great Britain has nothing to gain and much to lose from alterations in the present system of bases and fortifications in the Western Pacific.[iii]

The city of Singapore is located on the southern shore of the island of the same name, at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, near the eastern end of the Straits of Malacca. But the Base, which I recently had the opportunity of visiting, is tucked away on the northern side of the island, as well screened from observation and attack as possible. It fronts on the narrow Straits of Johore, which separate Singapore Island from the mainland; and it is in this secluded channel that the giants of the British Navy, should an emergency ever summon them to the Far East, will lie at anchor, waiting their turn for scraping and refitting. An area of about four square miles, not all of which is yet in use, has been reserved for the Base; and an impressive piece of reclamation work has been carried out on what was formerly a mangrove swamp.

The three main features of the Base are the huge floating dock, which had to be towed out to Singapore in several parts, and which has already been utilized by visiting warships; the cavernous solid concrete drydock, third largest of its kind in the world; and the quay, 2,200 feet long, which juts out into the Straits from the drydock. The drydock is the most impressive single sight of the Base. It is 1,000 feet long, 130 feet wide and about 80 feet in depth, and is provided with elaborate pumping machinery, located in a furnace-like underground chamber. It is capable of handling the Queen Mary or any warship afloat. Some dredging and excavation work are required before the dock is ready for use; but this is a matter of, at the most, a few months. The basic work, the laying of the massive concrete walls and foundations, has been completed. Numerous warehouses, storage tanks, repair shops, administrative buildings and bungalows for the residence of the naval and civilian personnel are scattered about on the territory of the Base. Only one vessel, the supply ship Terror, was in the Straits of Johore at the time of my visit. But it is expected that visits of warships will be frequent in the future and a squadron of lighter type ships may ultimately be stationed there.

Singapore is more than a naval base. Coördination there of land, air and naval arms is clearly foreseen. At the village of Selatar, about two miles from the Base, is one of the largest airports in the Orient. Passenger airplanes of Imperial Airways and of the Royal Dutch airline are constantly arriving and departing. The village acquires a distinctly military atmosphere from the presence of about 600 officers and men of the Royal Air Force and its steel hangars, large barracks and elaborate anti-aircraft defenses. The present air force at Singapore consists of two squadrons of bombing planes, equipped with torpedo bombers, and one squadron of the large flying boats which are especially well adapted for service amid the islands and channels or the surrounding region. Work is proceeding on two new airdromes, for exclusively military use, and there is every likelihood that the air force will be substantially augmented. Reconnaisance flights and bombing of targets in the water are practised steadily and intensively. A volunteer reserve flying force is also being built up. Aviation is evidently counted on very considerably in the plans for the security of Singapore. Another key point is the town of Changi, on the northeastern corner of the island, at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johore. Here one finds sixteen blocks of barracks with accommodations for some 1,400 officers and men, a score or more of anti-aircraft guns, along with mines, searchlights, and other appurtenances of coast defense. There also are heavy guns, with a range of twenty miles, in carefully camouflaged emplacements.

The original decision to construct the Singapore Base was a direct result of the non-renewal of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. And the perceptible speeding up of work on the Base during the last few years was in fairly direct proportion to the accelerated pace of the Japanese advance on the mainland of Asia. No amount of diplomatic reserve can obscure the fact that Singapore is primarily a bulwark against Japan.

No other Power but Japan is in a position to threaten Great Britain's interests in that part of the world. The only espionage that is feared in Singapore is Japanese. One alleged attempt to smuggle out documents revealing secret facts about the Base led to the spectacular suicide of a Japanese business man who was supposedly implicated in the case, and to the imprisonment of two of his accused accomplices. The importance which Japanese naval circles attach to Singapore is evident from the following excerpts from the book "Japan Must Fight Britain," by the retired Japanese naval officer, Lieut.-Commander Tota Ishimaru:[iv]

Two conditions are essential to the successful development of British strategy in the Pacific. One is the completion of the base at Singapore, the other the presence there of a Fleet at the critical moment. The base will shortly be finished, but without a Fleet there at the right time and in a condition to operate, the Japanese Fleet would have a free hand, and Australia, New Zealand, India, and the other possessions, together with the command of the sea in the Indian Ocean, would fall into the hands of the enemy . . . . Singapore, like Hong Kong, even more than Hong Kong, is a base essential to British operations. Were it invested, the danger of attempting to enter it would be so great that the British Fleet would have to find a base elsewhere, and there is none that is secure nearer than Australia. Therefore it would be to our advantage to attack it, whatever the risk.

Singapore is 1,625 miles distant from the southern end of Formosa and 2,520 miles away from Sasebo, the large naval base on Honshu, Japan's main island. In view of these distances it could scarcely serve as a starting point for a direct attack on Japan. But then a frontal attack on that magnificent natural fortress, the Japanese Island Empire, would hardly enter into British plans in the event of a conflict. A powerful naval and air force concentrated in Singapore could nevertheless perform several functions simultaneously. It could act as a sentinel for India, cut Japan's main trade route to Europe, afford some protection to the neighboring Dutch Indies, and make difficult any expedition against Australia.

Another consideration that may have figured in the British decision to build up Singapore is the present uncertainty regarding the status of the Philippines after 1946. There is little likelihood of external aggression against the Islands so long as the American flag is there. Japanese policy toward the Islands at the present time is reserved and discreet. There is careful self-limitation of Japanese emigration, and the Japanese authorities have avoided anything that savors of a hectoring or bullying attitude in connection with such issues as the leasing of hemp plantations to Japanese in Davao and the limitation of Japanese textile exports. But if a complete severance of all ties, political and economic, between the United States and the Philippines actually occurs when the Commonwealth period comes to an end on July 4, 1946, a new and unstable situation will arise. No one can foresee with absolute certainty whether the Philippines, if thrown on their own resources and exposed to the severe crisis that may ensue after the withdrawal of the right of preferential access to the American market, will be able to preserve political and social stability, whether the withdrawal of American influence may not in time be followed by the coming of the Japanese. The Philippines lie on the flank of the sea route from Singapore to Hong Kong and Shanghai and adjoin the Dutch East Indies on the south. Neither Great Britain nor France, the one with large vested interests in China and possessions in Malaya, the other with its big colony of Indo-China, could regard Japanese domination there with detachment.

It is the general testimony of American naval officers in Far Eastern stations that relations with their British colleagues have never been so wholeheartedly cordial as during recent years. A recent visit of the American Asiatic Squadron to Singapore was noteworthy in this respect; the reception was overwhelmingly hospitable and the American Admiral was entertained as the house guest of the British Governor of the Straits Settlements. One local newspaper, the Singapore Free Press, saw in the visit an omen for future Anglo-American naval coöperation in the Pacific. And there, as in other British communities in the Far East, one hears expressions of regret that Mr. Stimson's overtures for cooperative action in 1931 were so coolly received by Sir John Simon. This cordial attitude is in marked contrast to the coolness in British-Japanese naval relations which set in after the alleged maltreatment of three British sailors by the police of Keelung, the chief port of Formosa. Failing to obtain what they regarded as proper satisfaction for this incident, the British authorities have suspended for the time being the ordinary exchanges of courtesy naval visits between British and Japanese warships.

Pinpricks like the Keelung affair and the more solid fact that Singapore was built primarily as a defense against Japan do not signify that war between Japan and Great Britain is imminent or inevitable or probable. Throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century Russia was regarded as the enemy of the British Empire, the potential menace to India. Yet no Anglo-Russian conflict occurred; and in the World War the two countries were found on the same side. Today there are strong forces that militate against any outright clash between Britain and Japan. Japan retains substantial respect for Great Britain's sea power and is even more impressed by British financial and economic strength. For its part, Great Britain would certainly be very reluctant to risk becoming embroiled in conflict with the strongest Asiatic military and naval Power at a time when the European situation is so threatening and uncertain.

The fact remains that Great Britain, concerned to protect its great volume of investment in China, is playing a very active rôle in Far Eastern diplomacy and finance -- a much more active rôle than is the United States. American policy has been essentially passive during the last few years. In contrast, Great Britain through its financial envoy, Sir Frederick Leith-Ross, took an active part in encouraging China to make the momentous shift from a silver to a managed paper currency. And there have been several tentative British efforts, all blocked by Japan, to arrange some form of financial advance to China. Discreet British diplomatic inquiries in Tokyo regarding Japan's intentions in China have served, on several occasions, to restrain Japan from undertaking some of her more far-reaching military schemes.

While Great Britain has been constructing the huge Singapore base as an expression of its unwillingness to permit any drastic alteration of the status quo in East Asia, the United States and Japan, restrained by the terms of the Washington Treaty, have remained within the limitations set in 1922 regarding the construction of naval bases. Allegations have been made that Japan has fortified its mandated islands, and the League of Nations Mandates Commission has gone so far on occasion as to observe that harbor and public works development in some of the larger islands seems out of proportion to economic necessities. But no concrete evidence of illegal action is forthcoming.

As yet neither the United States nor Japan has indicated whether any use will be made of the release from treaty restrictions on the establishment of naval bases. The policy of each country will doubtless be influenced by that of the other. Before the American Government and public come to a decision that may some day prove to have been a serious influence for war or peace in the Pacific they should weigh the following questions:

What obligations, if any, will the United States assume toward the Philippines at the expiration of the Commonwealth period? Are American political, trade and investment interests in China important enough to warrant the additional expense and the increase in the risk of war which would be involved in the construction of an American naval base in a location where it would challenge Japan's sense of security in her home waters? Should the Pacific Fleet plan to be able to carry on offensive operations in the distant waters of the Western Pacific or should it set as its main strategic problem the easier task of defending the line Alaska-Hawaii? How far is closer coöperation with Great Britain in the Far East possible and desirable?

Fortunately these problems can be studied without any sense of strain and urgency. There is no immediate crisis in our relations with any of the Far Eastern nations that calls for hasty action.

[i] "War in The Pacific," by Sutherland Denlinger and Charles B. Gary. New York: McBride 1936, p. 241.

[ii]Cf. "The Strategy of Singapore," by Nicholas Roosevelt, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, January 1929.

[iii] The British naval force permanently stationed in Asiatic waters, although larger than the American, represents only a small part of the British Navy. It consists of eight cruisers, one aircraft carrier, nine destroyers, fifteen submarines, five sloops and sixteen gunboats.

[iv] "Japan Must Fight Britain," pp. 209, 252. Lieut.-Commander Ishimaru's political thesis, that Japan must fight England, was specifically repudiated by the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs. This fact, however, does not affect the validity of his strategic speculations.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • WILLIAM HENRY CHAMBERLIN, former Moscow correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor, now stationed in Tokyo; author of "Russia's Iron Age" and "The Russian Revolution: 1917-1921"
  • More By William Henry Chamberlin