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Asia’s Arms Race: What Battleships And The Cold War Can Teach Us

Asia's Arms Race
Image: Creative Commons.

What prospects for arms control in East Asia? Arms control is one of the ways that states manage power transition. Some have denounced the recent AUKUS nuclear submarine agreement as heralding a new arms race in the Western Pacific, especially with Japan openly expressing interest in acquiring its own nuclear boats. It is worth taking a look at past efforts to limit arms production in order to have a sense of the viability of the idea today.

The Naval Treaties

In the wake of World War I, the remaining great powers decided to head off a new arms race by setting strict limits on the number of battleships available to each power. In doing so, they sought to prevent a disastrous arms race that many feared could have precipitated a war between the United States and its erstwhile allies.

Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes boldly opened the negotiations of the Washington Naval Treaty in 1921 by listing the names of ships that could be scrapped and suggesting terms of disarmament. Eventually, the treaty forced Britain, Japan, and the US to discard numerous battleships and imposed strict limits on future construction. The restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaty System were sometimes honored in the breach. Japan in particular built ships marginally larger than the Treaty allowed, relying on secrecy and the lack of verification measures to persist in its deception. The Treaty did not include Germany, which was bound by other agreements after the armistice, or the Soviet Union. The latter lacked the industrial or fiscal capacity to pursue a naval buildup, and in any case, agreed to abide by most of the Treaty rules even as a non-member.

The legacy of the treaties remains contested. They certainly saved money for the major powers at a time when the financial situation was blinking red. On the other hand, some blame the treaties for enabling Japan (and eventually Germany) to “break out” and become naval challengers while Britain and the United States continued to abide by limitations.

The Cold War Treaties

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union successfully negotiated several treaties that limited both nuclear and conventional arms.  The ABM Treaty, concluded in 1972, sharply limited missile defense technologies, which were regarded as destabilizing. The SALT I treaty limited missile launch systems, while the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty put tight restrictions on intermediate-range cruise and ballistic missiles.  Towards the end of the Cold War, the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty limited the conventional arsenals of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, while the START treaty put further restrictions on US and Russian nuclear weapons.

These treaties are generally credited with reducing tensions between the US and the USSR and easing the glide path of the Soviet Union into oblivion by relieving the military of its security concerns. But most of those treaties have now ended, leaving the world in its current unsettled state.

Modern Prospects

So what prospect for arms control today in the Western Pacific?

Limiting nuclear weapons will be difficult, but not impossible.  The Trump administration tried and failed to bludgeon Russia into an agreement on nuclear arms control that would put pressure on China, in large part because such an effort would have failed in any case. But as the size and sophistication of China’s nuclear arsenal increases, we can imagine the vague parameters of an agreement that would offer the Chinese equality while restraining the growth of their nuclear force and making it more transparent. China has bitterly resisted this kind of transparency in the past, in part because the small size of its arsenal left it vulnerable to a first strike, but as China approaches parity those concerns may fade.

On conventional arms, the outlook is bleaker. The Washington Naval Treaty benefitted mightily from the fact that battleships are easy to define and hard to hide. An agreement would have to account for the ridiculously complex military environment of the Western Pacific. Ships, submarines, aircraft, ballistic missile launchers, cruise missile launchers, and unmanned platforms in both sea and air would require limitation and monitoring.

Moreover, none of the likely competitors in the Pacific faces the kind of shattering economic problems that Britain, Japan, France, and Italy faced at the end of World War I.  The United States spends the most (absolutely and relative to its economy), but it has maintained this high level of spending since World War II and apparently can continue to do so indefinitely.

Finally, the Washington Naval Treaty conceded Japanese superiority in its sphere of influence; either the US Navy or the Royal Navy would have been hard-pressed to win in Japan’s neighborhood, even if they had formal superiority.  The United States appears to have little interest in making such concessions to China.

What Is Really Possible? 

Arms control does not appear likely in the immediate future in the Western Pacific. However, China’s investment in missile silos and Australia’s investment in nuclear attack submarines suggests that an arms race may be in our future. In such a context, we need to start thinking about the possibilities and potential for mutual arms limitation.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.



  1. Winnie SC

    October 2, 2021 at 10:00 am

    Good article.

    Just a note–I don’t think the Washington treaties really helped Japan “break out” against the west although it may well have preserved them from national bankruptcy (there was no way Japan could pay for its “8-8” program which was negated by the treaty). While the Japanese did cheat a bit at the margins (viewing the treaty weight limitations more as a guideline/curb on unlimited growth than a bright line rule), it complied with the “numbers” limitations and did not start to build its “superbattleships” (or any battleships, for that matter) until after it had withdrawn from the treaty.

  2. Slack

    October 3, 2021 at 5:51 am

    Arms race in asia is DIRECT result of uncle sam’s overbearing presence in the region and nothing else.

    Worse, uncle sam has never shown to be a trustworthy merchant or intermediary.

  3. Scott Christie

    October 4, 2021 at 11:54 am

    I enjoyed the article. Battleships were the sea going equivalent of the Maginot Line. I have heard widely different costs in todays dollars but typically between 3-6 Billion Dollars for the Yamato and her sister ship. They were both sunk for the cost of a few hundred thousand dollars in aircraft and ordnance. Our Carriers will be destroyed in a wink of an eye for the fraction of the cost. They are the new battleships which are the tools of YESTERDAYS wars. Although pretty good against 3rd world nations.

    There will always be an arms race. There will always be war. The wise player will be prepared when that happens.

    In regards to Slacks comments. The arms race is a DIRECT result of China intimating every neighbor on ever side. Also making absurd claims about its “historic territory.” China is the new Imperial Japan.

  4. Jimmy John Doe

    October 4, 2021 at 1:27 pm

    Dr Farley should write an article concerning America’s very evil and dark role in east Asia history – from the bloody conquest of filipino natives, to the violent seizure of concessions in china, to the role of continuing supply of japan with aircraft, oil, iron and other materials even after the vicious slaughter in nanking in Dec 1937, to the betrayal of wartime victims by extending protection to top war criminals (hirohito + royal princes and Unit 371 personnel), to opposition of peace and post-war reality, the uncivilised bombing of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia and to today’s actions by US Navy to initiate war with china, the gathering of minions and supply of nuclear subs to canberra and forward basing of advanced weaponry in Asia.

  5. Scott

    October 4, 2021 at 2:57 pm

    1. Hey Jimmy. What is your nationality? I will be happy to write you an article on the dark history of your nation.

    2. It is also very easy to judge nations and people with 20/20 hindsight.

    3. It is also easy to justify US actions against evil nations…Namely Viet Nam, Cambodia, China, which you called out by name? Because I don’t have a year, let me just say with China, what did the US do to China that the Chinese didn’t do to themselves? Did we slaughter 50,000,000 of their people. No the ChiComs did that. Did we do the Cambodia genocide? No the Cambodians did that

    4. I guess by your reasoning, evil is OK as long as you were born there.

    So sound like a chicom troll.

  6. Slack

    October 4, 2021 at 3:07 pm

    US, like Japan (in the past) has the DUBIOUS honor of casting a very dark and very evil shadow over Asia.

    US military bases in Japan are among the most haunted in the region and this speaks volumes about the unspeakable evil nature of both yanks and japs in east Asia as well as their devilish / malicious role, militarily and politically in Asia.

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