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29 Minutes of Fourth Meeting of Principal Delegates to Imperial Conference

E (PD) (37) 4 (extracts) LONDON, 22 May 1937


The question of regional pacts, initially raised by the U.K. in connection with proposals for the reform of the Covenant of the League of Nations, was considered by a Cabinet sub-committee on 11 September 1936. The memorandum prepared for the sub-committee was used as an Imperial Conference brief and is printed as Document 5.

Further reference to Australia's interest in promoting regional understanding and a pact of non-aggression in the Pacific can be found in the extract from one of the Defence Department memoranda for the Conference printed as Document 13.

The British Government was not, however, given any warning that Lyons intended to raise the matter at the Imperial Conference. For the initial British reaction, see cablegram 101 from the U.K. High Commissioner in Canberra to the U.K. Government on 19 May 1937 and accompanying Foreign Office minute of 20 May 1937 in PRO: FO 371/21025.

MR EDEN: At the opening Session of the Conference Mr Lyons had alluded to the possibility of concluding a 'regional understanding and Pact of Non-Aggression by the countries of the Pacific conceived in the spirit of the principles of the League.'[1] No doubt in due time Mr Lyons would elaborate this idea which must be of the greatest interest to all present. Though he (Mr Eden) was not yet quite clear in his own mind as to what Mr Lyons had in view, it might perhaps assist clarification if he were to submit one or two observations. Great Britain was not opposed to Pacts of Non-Aggression if there was a general desire for them and if they represented a real intention for peace and collaboration. They might play a part in producing a detente and he would do nothing to discourage any attempt to consolidate the situation in any part of the world. He did think, however, that we must be sure that a Pact of NonAggression would contribute to that end before we embarked upon it, because after all a simple Pact of Non- Aggression only repeated what was already contained in the Kellogg Pact [2], and to reaffirm Treaties might only have the effect of casting doubt on their validity-a doubt which in a few years' time might attach to the reaffirmation. Constant reaffirmation of obligations risked undermining the validity of international engagements. In the past we had attempted to supplement the Covenant by regional agreements of which the Treaty of Locarno was the prototype, but these agreements were in the form of a Treaty of Mutual Guarantee. [3] If what Mr Lyons had in mind was anything of this nature, Mr Eden was sure that he would not be unconscious of the difficulties:-

(1) we should be assuming a new, definite and very grave commitment in joining in any guarantee of the status quo;

(2) our experience taught us that it would almost certainly be impossible for the United States to join in such an arrangement, and without their participation the scheme would lose much of its value.

Since China in 1931 failed to find protection in the League, the Chinese Government had on various occasions approached us tentatively with the idea of such a regional Pact. We had always indicated to them the necessity of sounding the United States Government on the subject, but if they had done so we certainly had not heard that they had obtained any result.

Reverting to the idea of a simple Non-Aggression Pact he (Mr Eden) fully realised that there might be, so to speak, a great moral value in securing a United States signature to such a document if that could be done as a specific indication of the particular interest which the United States took in that region, an interest very similar to our own in that she was concerned for the maintenance of the status quo and for the peace and well-being of all countries in the Far East, but whether it would have more than a moral value was doubtful. If Russia could be included in such a Pact it might be very useful, but this of course might well raise difficulties with Japan. It would be very helpful to hear at a later stage exactly what was in the minds of the Australian Delegation and other Delegations interested in the matter, but if any action was taken it would be necessary to move with extreme caution, and in particular to ensure that Japan was favourable to what was proposed from the outset.

[matter omitted]

MR LYONS said that the Australian Delegation had in mind the making of a Non-Aggression Pact on the lines of the old Quadruple Treaty. [4] If such a pact covering the Pacific could be made this would be a very important first step towards the bringing together of the countries concerned with a view to the improvement of their relations and the growth of closer and more intimate collaboration between them. He (Mr Lyons) had mentioned the suggestion to the President of the United States, who might perhaps have been expected to react somewhat unfavourably. In point of fact, however, Mr Roosevelt had stated that the preservation of peace was the first and most important consideration, and that he would be quite ready to enter into an agreement with Japan or with any other country to secure this end. [5] If it was found possible to bring about some understanding of the kind in contemplation, it might be found possible to relieve Great Britain to some extent of the heavy burden of her defensive preparations in the Pacific and the same would apply to Australia and the other Dominions concerned. Mr Lyons suggested that the proposed pact should in general be based on the old Quadruple Treaty which contained provisions to the following effect:-

'With a view to the preservation of the general peace and the maintenance of their rights in relation to their insular possessions and insular dominions in the region of the Pacific Ocean- 1. The High Contracting Parties agree as between themselves to respect their rights in relation to their insular possessions and insular dominions in the region of the Pacific Ocean.

If there should develop between any of the High Contracting Parties a controversy arising out of any Pacific question and involving their said rights which is not satisfactorily settled by diplomacy and is likely to affect the harmonious accord now happily subsisting between them, they shall invite the other High Contracting Parties to a joint conference to which the whole subject will be referred for consideration and adjustment:

2. If the said rights are threatened by the aggressive action of any other Power, the High Contracting Parties shall communicate with one another fully and frankly in order to arrive at an understanding as to the most efficient measures to be taken, jointly or separately, to meet the exigencies of the particular situation.'

Australia's objective in this matter was the preservation of peace and the maintenance of ever-increasing friendly relations with Japan. It was true that Japan had objected to the measures which Australia had taken to protect British exports to Australia against Japanese competition. These objections had now been overcome. It would no doubt take a long time to achieve the proposed Pact, but it would be helpful if the Conference could give the proposal encouragement and support.

MR MACKENZIE KING enquired whether the signatories to the proposed pact would be the same as the signatories to the Kellogg Pact. It should be remembered that the United States had been responsible for the Kellogg Pact. There was some danger that in any new Pact it might eventually be found, that responsibilities had been incurred by the Commonwealth Governments, which were not shared by the United States.

MR LYONS said that he fully appreciated difficulties of this kind.

At the same time Mr Roosevelt had told him that if serious trouble arose in the Pacific the United States would be prepared to make common cause with the members of the Commonwealth concerned.

MR MACKENZIE KING added that Mr Roosevelt had spoken to him of his desire to see the fortification of the islands of the Pacific dismantled as a measure of furthering peace in the Pacific.

MR EDEN said that there was of course a considerable difference between an expression of opinion by Mr Roosevelt in private conversations and the entering into by him, as President of the United States, of undertakings and commitments in a formal document.

MR CASEY enquired whether Mr Eden was ready to say anything about the Philippines. The grant of independence to the Islands would raise certain problems as regards the Pacific generally.

MR EDEN said that he did not know whether the attitude of the United States would undergo modification before that time. His impression was that Mr Roosevelt was thinking of the neutralisation of the Pacific as a means of safeguarding the Philippines during the transition period.

MR CASEY enquired whether anything would be done as regards a guarantee of the independence of the Philippine Republic.

MR EDEN said that he had no definite information, but he understood that the United States would like the other Pacific powers to have the same commitment towards the Islands as the United States had now. In any case, the grant of complete independence was still eight years off.

MR CHAMBERLAIN asked whether Mr Savage wished to make any observations.

MR SAVAGE said that he would like to thank Mr Eden for his simple and frank exposition of the problems.

As regards a Pacific Pact, he did not yet know enough to express an opinion and he would like to have more information before doing so. He rather imagined that any such arrangement would necessarily have an economic foundation. He was prepared to go a very long way for peace, but he would not much like a Pact which necessitated New Zealand shifting her trade from the United Kingdom to Japan.

LORD ZETLAND said that India and Burma were vitally concerned in relations between the British Commonwealth and Japan. His chief apprehension in this connection at the present time was the penetration in Eastern waters of Japanese shipping and more particularly Japanese fishing fleets. The latter were scattered over all the coasts from the Persian Gulf to New Zealand, and comprised very efficient boats fitted with wireless which were undoubtedly carrying on intelligence work for the Japanese Admiralty.

The matter was under consideration in consultation with the Admiralty here, with a view to plans being devised for dealing with the situation.

MR CHAMBERLAIN said that the suggestion made by Mr Lyons appeared to be the most important matter arising out of the discussion. It seemed desirable, however, to work it out in greater detail before it was in a form on which the Conference could express an opinion.

He felt that the best course would be for those present to turn the matter over in their minds during the forthcoming week and for the matter to be discussed between individuals.

Further discussion could take place at the meetings which would be held on Mr Eden's return from Geneva and a decision could then be reached whether there should be a resolution by the Conference on the subject.

1 Document 25.

2 See Document 17, note 6.

3 The Locarno Treaties, signed 1 December 1925, the most important of which confirmed the inviolability of the frontiers between Germany and France and Germany and Belgium and of the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland. There were also Treaties of Mutual Guarantee between France and Poland and France and Czechoslovakia, and arbitration conventions between Germany and France, Poland, Belgium and Czechoslovakia.

4 Signed 13 December 1921 at Washington by the British Empire, France, Japan, United States.

5 This apparently referred to a conversation Lyons had with Roosevelt in July 1935, an account of which is in Dame Enid Lyons's book, So We Take Comfort (London, 1965), pp. 241-43. No record of the talk has been found in Prime Minister's Department files, or in the Lyons papers held in the Australian Archives.

Last Updated: 11 September 2013

Category: International relations

Topic: History