793.94112/9: Telegram

The Secretary of State to the Chargé in the United Kingdom (Johnson)

374. Your 569, August 31, 6 p.m.

1. The Department has given very careful consideration to the suggestion which Mr. Eden, prompted by a query from the French, has offered for meeting the situation created by the Japanese announcement of a blockade along the coast of China.

Mr. Eden’s suggestion, as we understand it, envisages an understanding on the part of the British, the French and the American Governments that they will consent to their merchant ships being overhauled by Japanese naval vessels acting in good faith and solely for the purpose of verification of nationality and subject to certain conditions and escape provisions; and, an offer by the three powers, either by a collective approach or by separate approaches, to the Japanese Government of such a concession, the whole arrangement to eventuate in and depend upon an agreement comprehending the points indicated. The British Government feels that this would be a wise course and that it might meet the Japanese complaints of the use of foreign flags and contribute toward deterring the Japanese from action which would clothe them with belligerent rights. Mr. Eden does not urge that this suggestion be adopted but he feels that the situation is so threatening as to warrant its being advanced, and he has informed the French Government of his approach to this Government. He feels that helpful cooperation has been forthcoming and that the necessity for cooperation is increasingly apparent.

2. In the announcement made by the Japanese Government of its intention to establish a blockade of a portion of the China coast and in statements which high Japanese authorities have made in explanation and exposition of what is intended, the Department finds that what the Japanese apparently contemplate is interference with movement of [Page 442] Chinese vessels and Chinese commerce; it has been expressly stated that interference with merchant vessels other than Chinese is not intended; to an express question what would happen to a Canadian Pacific or a Dollar Line vessel bound for Shanghai carrying war material known to be destined for Chinese forces, the answer has been given: “No interference would be made with that vessel”; they have, however, charged that Chinese ships have been flying foreign flags and that Japan is faced with the necessity of inspecting suspected ships in order to be sure of their identity, and they state that they do not wish to create difficulties for ships of third powers and that they therefore would like to have advance notice of such ships entering the area of blockade, with certain details.

The Japanese of course have no right to overhaul vessels of third powers. Their desire to circumvent abuse of foreign flags is not unnatural. It may be expected that there will not be a large number of cases in which vessels actually of foreign nationality will be difficult to identify by mere observation. It may be assumed, in the light of Mr. Eden’s suggestion, that the British Government does not contemplate insistence by itself and other powers upon the right of immunity from being overhauled which vessels of third powers possess in international law. There are two ways in which the problem as presented can be met: either by taking a definite step such as Mr. Eden suggests, involving the making of an offer of a concession and the concluding of an agreement providing for acquiescence, or, a simple acquiescence if and as cases in point occur. In the light of all the facts available and of our estimate of probabilities and possibilities, it seems to us that the practical advantages of following the suggested course of express concession and agreement would be outweighed by the possible disadvantages. Just as it has been our feeling that it would be better to rest on the statements which the Japanese have already made than to make further inquiries in regard to their intention in relation to their blockade, so, it seems to us that it would be better for the powers concerned merely to understand inter se that none of them expects to resist with force the overhauling of its merchant vessels for purposes of identification, which would still leave to each its right to object, than to waive this right and accord to the Japanese by express assent a privilege which is inconsistent with the rules of international law and which might easily be abused.

3. Inasmuch as Mr. Eden spoke with you, I hope it will be possible for you to take this up personally and in confidence with him. Read to him the above. Add that in the above we have discussed the suggestion on the basis of what seem to us to be its inherent practical merits; but that, in addition, we are influenced by two other considerations. First, there can be no assurance that, however limited Japan’s [Page 443] enforcement of a blockade may be at the outset, it will not soon become more extensive and involve operations more drastic, in which case the proposed action under reference would take care of only one of the various embarrassing questions which may arise. Second, participation by this Government in a procedure on the line suggested, followed, if and when, by a proclamation by us, under our neutrality legislation,90 in consequence of developments in the Chinese-Japanese situation, of our neutrality would render the fact of our having so participated embarrassing both to us and to the other powers with whom we would have embarked upon that procedure. Please also say to Mr. Eden that I appreciate his message recorded in the last paragraph of your telegram under reference.

  1. Approved August 31, 1935, 49 Stat. 1081; amended February 29, 1936, and May 1, 1937, 49 Stat. 1152 and 50 Stat. 121.