Report from V E Wellington Koo of the Chinese delegation
Washington Conference, 6th November 2021 – The Centenary Edition
Offside report by Andy Grainger
A major topic of the 1921 / 2021 Washington Conference was China. In 1911 the Imperial Chinese Government had been overthrown and replaced by a Parliamentary regime but the country is still very unstable. It is in everyone’s interest to restore stability to China and enable the Government to run it properly as it offers such a huge market for western goods. There was also widespread recognition that China had been unfairly treated by the European Powers ever since the First Opium War of 1842 and that the indemnities placed on her since then should be reduced. Yet although China had supported the allies in the Great War and was promised fine words in the form of recognition of territorial integrity and sovereignty she was nevertheless stitched up at the Versailles Conference when the former German concessions were given to Japan – already in occupation of Manchuria, Korea and a big chunk of Far Eastern Russia.
And the difference between words and actions was something of a fixture during the Conference. Encouraged by offers of US support in Washington beforehand the hopes of the Chinese delegation were high and we issued the following Statement:
China therefore welcomes the recognition of the Great Powers that these injustices be addressed in Washington and looks forward to productive discussions.
China therefore calls upon the Conference to:
- Recognise and respect the territorial integrity of China and the right of the Chinese government to be the sole determinant of law and security within it.
- To bring to an end, over an agreed timescale, the leaseholds, concessions and treaty ports unfairly acquired by the occupying powers and the withdrawal of their occupying civil and armed forces.
- To allow China, as a sovereign power to raise revenues as she sees fit including the setting of Customs tariffs. In this context China however agrees to facilitate the Open Door policy by applying a uniform tariff rate.
- To repeal the unfair indemnities currently being paid by China to foreign powers from whom she was defending herself.
Yet although China enjoyed a generally benign press coverage this Statement was not published.
The head of the delegation Sao-Ke Alfred Sze (Brian Cameron) was basically told by the Chairman of the Political Committee to stop spending so much time complaining at the lack of serious proposals to reduce the indemnities. When his deputy, V E Wellington Koo (Andy Grainger) took over he was simply told to accept the 7% tariff (a 2% increase) that the other powers were prepared to pay… er, what was that about a sovereign country being able to set its own revenues. There was no discussion about indemnities and so when Koo reserved China’s position the other powers made it quite clear that they regarded China as a troublemaker.
It had always been clear that Japan was interested only in occupying the whole of China. Suggestions to the other powers that if it did, or the country sank into Bolshevism or Civil War then nobody would get any trade fell on deaf ears. Indeed it became clear that Britain and Japan were in cahoots. The Anglo-Japanese Naval Treaty was renewed and the Americans accepted a build-limit of 90% of UK tonnage despite the clear implication that they would be outnumbered in the Pacific.
Full marks therefore to the US head of delegation Charles Hughes (Andrew Hadley) for creating a deal whereby the Powers agreed to increase the tariff rate to 10% i.e. double) though at the cost of China formally leasing Manchuria and Shantung to Japan for 50 years. The Treaty ports would also be rationalised at a future conference which might bring China some benefit although nothing was done about the crushing burden of the indemnities (requiring about one third of China’s annual income to service). On the Chinese delegation we regarded this Agreement as the Scrap of Paper that guaranteed Belgian independence in 1914. We were sure that further Japanese incursions into China would be resisted by the USA, UK and other powers with armed force in the same way that Britain had defended plucky little Belgium in 1914…
China could therefore take something home to its people although what they would think of the leases left me as Wellington Koo pleased that I had a post that I could take up in a US Law Firm as well as being head of the Chinese delegation at the League of Nations well away from Peking.
We tend to look at the Washington Conference through the lens of the Western Powers and WW2. Yet this game clearly showed that WW2 did not start in Poland in 1939 but in China in 1931 or 1937 – choose your date. After the Second World War the Great Powers were determined to make the United Nations work as witnessed by concerted action by the USA, UK and others in the Korean War. The League of Nations relied entirely on moral force and in the world of the Dictators this was not going to work especially in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
If Britain had renewed its Naval Treaty with Japan could it have restrained Japanese imperialism? One rather doubts it, not least because they would have had to square up to the Americans who would be very sensitive to such a joint threat to their interests in the Pacific.
Congratulations to Dave Boundy for re-running this game and to the players for running with it so well. It is a demanding game to play and there were quite a few new players including a complete French team. Everyone acquitted themselves well and in the Anerley Arms afterwards I had the impression that everyone had enjoyed themselves.