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Australia's Northern Shield?


The island of New Guinea, and specifically that part which became the state of Papua New Guinea, has long featured prominently in Australia’s perceptions of its national security. As early as 1867 the colonial government of New South Wales urged the British government, unsuccessfully, to take possession of New Guinea. Sixteen years later the Queensland government, concerned about the prospect of German imperialist expansion in the Pacific, ‘took possession’ of New Guinea and adjacent islands east of the border with Dutch New Guinea. This action was repudiated by the British Government, but after Germany established a protectorate over northeastern New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago the following year, Britain responded by claiming the southeast portion of the island, which was subsequently transferred to Australia, becoming the Protectorate of Papua. In 1914 an Australian expeditionary force took over German New Guinea, which in the post-war settlement became a mandated territory under Australian administration. But while the potential threat of German imperialism was removed, Japan, which in 1902 had become an ally of Great Britain and had gained Germany’s Pacific territories north of the Equator, was now seen as a potential threat to Australia’s security.

The Japanese invasion of New Guinea during the Second World War confirmed the common view in Australia that securing at least the eastern half of New Guinea was essential for the defence of Australia, providing a shield against aggression from the north. The shared wartime experience of Australians and Papua New Guineans also created continuing bonds between the two countries which persist, notably in the symbolism of the Kokoda Track.

In the period following the Second World War Australian threat perceptions shifted more firmly to Asia, particularly against the background of Britain’s military withdrawal from ‘East of Suez’, Indonesian Konfrontasi in Malaysia and the dispute over West Papua. Defence of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea was seen as an essential element of Australia’s defence strategy. During the early 1960s concerns about possible Indonesian expansionism towards Papua New Guinea prompted a surge of activity on Australia’s part to increase, and localise, the military in Papua New Guinea (which on the eve of independence was still part of Australia’s Northern Command) and strengthen security infrastructure along the Indonesia– Papua New Guinea border.

In the years leading up to Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975, questions relating to future defence relations between Australia and Papua New Guinea came under increasing scrutiny. Australia was particularly reluctant to engage in a formal defence treaty with an independent Papua New Guinea, fearing it might be drawn into a conflict if the new state acted ‘irresponsibly’, for example in response to a border incursion by Indonesia. With apparent secessionist movements in Bougainville and Papua emerging on the eve of independence, Australia was also concerned about the future internal stability of the new state. Ironically, perhaps, Papua New Guinea was also keen to avoid formal treaty relationships, having adopted a foreign policy of ‘Universalism’ – friends to all and enemies to none – and not wanting to ‘participate in the great powers’ quarrels’. The final outcome of negotiations between the two countries was an amicable Joint Statement, released in 1977, which affirmed the two countries’ agreement to sustain their close cooperation in defence matters and to consult at the request of either about matters affecting their common security. This position was reaffirmed, in terms which were generally seen to be slightly stronger, in a Joint Declaration of Principles, initiated by Papua New Guinea, in 1987 and again in a reworded Declaration in 2013 (which omits specific reference to defence but ‘builds on’ the 1987 agreement). The two countries have maintained a close relationship in defence matters and Australia has continued to support the Papua New Guinea Defence Force through its Defence Cooperation Program. But given Australia’s defence commitments to unwinnable conflicts far from its shores, Papua New Guinea may have chosen wisely to avoid ‘great powers’ quarrels’.

The bare bones of this story have been documented elsewhere, but Bruce Hunt’s study presents in rich detail both the elements of continuity in the story and the shifts that have taken place in strategic thinking over time in response to external events and changing actors. The book began as a meticulously researched PhD thesis for the University of New England. Subsequently Hunt gained access to Australian Cabinet Notebooks, which have provided new insights into the processes of policy formulation on the Australian side, particularly under the Menzies government and through notably John McEwen. It highlights the dramatic changes that occurred in Australia’s thinking in the late 1960s and early 1970s as internal security issues in Papua New Guinea began to dominate Canberra’s perceptions of the long-term defence relationship with Port Moresby. The study thus gives us not only a comprehensive account of the evolution of relations between Australia and Papua New Guinea in the field of geopolitical defence strategy but also a more general insight into the way in which policies are formulated. It also explores the relationship between Australia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Southeast Asia more broadly.

As scholars and practitioners of my generation who have a continuous association with Papua New Guinea since before the country’s independence move on, firsthand knowledge of the history of Australia’s relations with Papua New Guinea is fading. At a time when many are calling for greater engagement with and understanding of Papua New Guinea, Australians need to know more about the history and context of relations between our two countries. Bruce Hunt’s book is a major contribution to our understanding of Australian attitudes towards Papua New Guinea and its role in the evolution of Australia’s defence policy and strategic assessments.

Dr Ron May

Emeritus Fellow

Australian National University


Australia's Northern Shield?

   by Bruce Hunt