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Australia's Northern Shield?


‘The establishment of a foreign power in the neighbourhood of Australia would be injurious to …

Australia’s interests’.

T. J. McIlwraith, Premier of Queensland, 1883

‘Australia cannot be secure if our immediate neighbourhood, including PNG, became the source of threat to Australia’.

2016 Defence White Paper

A feature of the analysis and discussion of Australia’s strategic environment over the past one hundred years has been the remarkable degree of continuity in the language used to describe and the prominence given to the place of Papua New Guinea (PNG) in Australia’s defence outlook. In 1956 the holding of Papua New Guinea was described as ‘vital to the defence of Australia’. It was seen as the ‘most suitable area from which to launch air and sea attacks on the vital east coast of Australia’ and as providing ‘the best area for mounting an invasion of eastern Australia’. PNG gave Australia and her allies ‘potential forward bases from which operations could be mounted against attacks from the northwest’, i.e. Indonesia. It was ‘essential in our last outer ring of defence, i.e. Cocos Islands–Darwin–New Guinea–Manus’.1 More recently, for example in 1976, immediately after independence from Australia, Papua New Guinea’s importance to Australia was described as ‘resid(ing) in its geographic position and proximity; in the potential for trouble in PNG’s relations with Indonesia; and in the security of extensive Australian interests in PNG’. In addition, ‘military lodgement in PNG by a power unfriendly to Australia would facilitate attack against Australia and lines of communication to Australia’s north. … denial of (such) opportunity … should remain an enduring objective of Australian national policy’. The objective of Australia’s policy was to ensure that PNG saw Australia ‘as its primary strategic partner’.2 The 1987 White Paper, ‘The Defence of Australia’, drawing on the groundbreaking Dibb Report of the previous year, noted that ‘our historic ties give Australia a strong interest in the security of Papua New Guinea, and this is reinforced by Papua New Guinea’s geographic location which makes its security a major factor in our own strategic outlook’.3 It added, ‘because of the potential strategic implications, Australia would be understandably concerned should a hostile power gain lodgement or control in Papua New Guinea’.4

The seventh Australian Defence White Paper, published in February 2016, gave a similar prominence to Papua New Guinea in Australia’s strategic environment. An early reference asserts that ‘our nearest region, which encompasses Australia’s borders and offshore territories, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and the Pacific Island Countries and maritime South East Asia, is of the most immediate importance for Australia’s security’. Elsewhere, it argues that ‘Australia cannot be secure if our immediate neighbourhood, including Papua New Guinea … becomes a source of threat to Australia. This includes a threat of a foreign military power seeking influence in ways that could challenge the security of our maritime approaches or transnational crime targeting Australian interests’. Furthermore, ‘geography, shared history, business and interpersonal links tie Australia’s interests closely to stability and prosperity in our immediate neighbourhood spanning Papua New Guinea’.5

How has Papua New Guinea come to occupy, over an extended period of time, such a prominent place in Australia’s security outlook? Specifically, this book examines, from a historical perspective, the place of Papua New Guinea in Australia’s strategic and defence environment in order to understand the forces that have consistently shaped Australia’s approach to determining Papua New Guinea’s role in that environment.

For over a century Australia has viewed the defence relationship with its closest neighbour to the near north, Papua New Guinea, in the context of the intrusion of foreign powers or an anxiety about the stability and dependability of the country itself. It has been the focus of Australian concerns about the ambitions of Imperial Germany, Japanese aggression and Indonesian threats of infiltration and subversion. More recently, as it approached independence in 1975, Papua New Guinea was seen by Australian decision-makers as chronically unstable and liable to fall victim to internal instability and separatist divisions. It was feared that Australia would be forced to intervene to restore stability and unity. On occasion, Australia has also regarded Papua New Guinea as a liability whose immaturity in managing its relationship with Indonesia had the potential, in extremis, to embarrass the Australian Government.


Map of Papua New Guinea. Courtesy of CartoGIS, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.

From as early as the mid-1880s Australian political leaders had spoken of a special relationship between Australia and the eastern half of the island, as the western half had already been secured by the Netherlands. In 1884, at Australia’s insistence, Britain acquired Papua, the southeast quarter of the island. In the final decades of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth century, leaders of the new Commonwealth of Australia, egged on by influential newspaper editors and the general public, asserted a claim to acquire Papua and New Guinea as an integral part of the new nation’s manifest destiny and as a bastion to protect it from invaders.6 Australia’s Prime Minister during the First World War, William Morris Hughes, sought to assert an exclusive role for Australia in the region and advocated an Australian version of the United States’s Monroe Doctrine covering South America to apply across the South Pacific, including Papua New Guinea. German New Guinea, the northeast quarter of the main island, and the Bismarck Archipelago, were occupied by Australian forces in the early days of the First World War. As part of the peace settlement at the end of the war, Australia secured all the former German possessions south of the Equator and administered New Guinea as a mandated territory under the League of Nations.

During the Second World War Papua New Guinea was the scene of some of the most brutal and crucial battles of the war involving Australian forces – battles whose ferocity and death toll quickly became etched into the psyche of a generation of Australians. The official estimate is that 114,000 Australians served in Papua New Guinea during the Second World War, although Hank Nelson, the noted academic on Papua New Guinea from the Australian National University, has also calculated that over 300,000 Australians served in Papua New Guinea – or one in twenty of the Australian population.7 More Australians – 2165 – died in the broader Papuan campaign than in any other theatre in the war.8 Nine of the twenty Victoria Crosses awarded to Australians during the Second World War were won in fighting in Papua New Guinea.9 As Nelson has observed: ‘in its influence on Australian attitudes to Papua New Guinea, three and [a] half years of World War II may have been more important and more enduring than nearly one hundred years of administrative history … [A]s a result of the war New Guinea … entered Australian nationalism’.10 The psychological pull on decision-makers of the memories of the war was to last for a generation or more.

More recently, in the period 2001 to 2015, 44,475 Australians have walked the 96 kilometres of the Kokoda Track across the rugged Owen Stanley Ranges in Papua New Guinea, one of the most gruelling mountain jungle tracks in the world.11 These trekkers were attempting to replicate and honour the experience of thousands of Australian soldiers who in 1942 repelled the Japanese threat to Port Moresby in the Battle of Kokoda. In his 1992 visit to the Kokoda war memorial, Prime Minister Paul Keating knelt and kissed the ground in front of the memorial, describing the location as a ‘solemn place, a national shrine’ for all Australians.

The nature of the relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea is without parallel in Australia’s history. It is a shared history. Papua New Guinea, with a population at Independence in September 1975 of close to three million, was the largest overseas community Australia had governed. Prior to Independence, Papuans were acknowledged as Australian citizens and British subjects while New Guineans were Australian protected persons. Both travelled on Australian passports however neither had an automatic right of residence in Australia. Australia governed the Territory through an Administrator who was appointed by the Governor-General and was responsible to the Australian Minister for Territories. Australia had introduced and sponsored a system of government, finance, public service, education, law and justice which were mirrors of its own. Australian currency was the sole legal tender in the Territory. Even the sports played in Papua New Guinea were transplanted from Australia. Between 1949 and 1974 approximately 2000 Australians had served as Kiaps or District Officers representing the Australian Administration in some of the most inaccessible parts of the country. Thirty thousand Australians were still resident there in 1975, with 2500 serving in the public service. At the time of independence, ten Commonwealth Government departments and nine agencies or instrumentalities were working in Papua New Guinea. Over 270 Acts of the Australian Parliament formed part of the Territory’s internal laws. Australia had established, nurtured and trained the Territory’s police and defence forces and had provided the commanders and senior officers of both forces. The defence force, with over 400 Australian service personnel still serving in it at Independence, was an integral part of the Australian Defence Force.


Map of northern Australia and Southeast Asia and Melanesia. Courtesy of CartoGIS, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.


Map of whole island of New Guinea noting important historical dates of possession and administration. Courtesy of CartoGIS, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.

On the economic front, Australian investments dominated the local economy with an Australian-incorporated company operating the rich Panguna copper mine on Bougainville Island and another soon to open the equally rich Ok Tedi gold and copper mine near the border with Indonesia. Half of all public expenditure in Papua New Guinea was funded by Australia, while the incoming indigenous government relied on Australia for approximately half of total government receipts.12 Australia was Papua New Guinea’s largest trading partner. It was Papua New Guinea’s largest export market and Papua New Guinea was Australia’s fifth largest market. Papua New Guinea was the recipient at Independence of the largest economic development package in Australia’s history and a Prime Ministerial–level commitment that it would have first call on Australia’s overseas aid program. In the period 1945 to 1975 Australia was by far the dominant influence on the country’s development. Such was the role of Australia that Prime Minister Robert Menzies in 1963 told a local audience in Port Moresby that Australia would in time be able to say that ‘we have built a new Jerusalem of our own in this country’.13

The Strategic Assessment Papers, developed by Australian military planners and approved by Cabinet and which served as the fundamental guidance for the planning of Australia’s defence preparedness, had, since the mid-1950s, identified Papua New Guinea as of central importance to Australia’s defence. Papua New Guinea sat astride Australia’s military and trade lines of communication to Southeast Asia and North Asia and to United States military bases in the Western Pacific. In 1970, for example, nineteen per cent in value and twenty one per cent in volume of Australia’s trade with Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan passed through the territorial waters surrounding Papua New Guinea. Traditionally it had been seen as a potential base for the conduct of enemy operations inimical to Australia’s security. In more recent times its common border with Indonesia had ensured that it was of ‘abiding’ strategic interest to Australia. Until Independence Australia was responsible for Papua New Guinea’s defence. In 1970, as the Australian Cabinet began to contemplate a self-governing Papua New Guinea, ministers were told:

No matter what the constitutional position maybe, Australia will always have a close interest in whatever happens in Papua New Guinea. No matter how reluctant an Australian Government of the future may be to contemplate intervening to maintain order or to promote Australian interests, the possibility cannot be ruled out of its being requested to do so or of circumstances in which it would feel compelled to do so even if the Territory had attained full independence.14

Paul Dibb, the author of a number of Strategic Basis Papers in the 1980s and now prominent among Australia’s defence analysts, has noted Papua New Guinea has never been far from the centre of Australian strategic assessments and is still regarded as a primary area of Australia’s defence interests.15

A further question behind this study is why, given this long historical association and the primary role of Papua New Guinea in Australia’s defence assessments, did Australia not formalise its defence relationship with and its strategic interest in Papua New Guinea with a binding agreement at Independence to guarantee the country’s security against external attack.

Several significant historical episodes have been chosen as a means of exploring this question and the changing importance of Papua New Guinea in Australia’s strategic outlook. These episodes have been selected because they establish the proposition that, until shortly before the critical phase of preparing for independence, Australia made judgements about the importance of Papua New Guinea using external reference points as the focus of its assessments.

This book will detail the argument that defence and security interests and a fear of Australia’s Asian neighbours dominated Australia’s consideration of the value of Papua New Guinea. They propelled politicians in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century to secure the territory for the new Commonwealth of Australia. In the first instance, the role of Imperial Germany and its naval fleet in the Pacific is relevant to the examination of why Australia sought to gain possession of Papua and later New Guinea. However, it was the assessment of Japan’s ambitions in the Pacific before, during and following the First World War which dominated contemporary Australian political and defence analyses. These placed Japan at the centre of Australia’s concerns about peace in the region. The threat from Japan became the major influence on Australia’s view of the island as a buffer against invasion from the north. This led Prime Minister William Morris Hughes to go to extraordinary lengths at meetings of the Imperial War Cabinet in London and then at the Peace Conference in Paris to argue the case for Australia to secure the former German possessions in the Pacific south of the Equator. He preferred that Australia annex the islands but had to settle for the newly created concept of a League of Nations mandate over German New Guinea. Australia would be allowed to administer the mandated territory as if it were an integral part of Australia but was prohibited from taking defence measures to protect the territory.

By the end of the Second World War, following the desperate fighting of the New Guinea campaign, Papua New Guinea had been firmly established in the minds of all Australians as a shield protecting the country. In the opinion of Dr H. V. Evatt, the wartime Minister for External Affairs, one of Australia’s principal postwar strategic imperatives was to secure ‘complete and exclusive power’16 over Papua New Guinea, a land he described as ‘consecrated by the sacrifices of Australians in two world wars’.17

The third external reference point was Indonesia. It is inevitable in a study of the place of Papua New Guinea in Australia’s strategic environment that Indonesia should figure significantly. Indeed much of the consideration and analysis of the place of Papua New Guinea by successive post–Second World War Australian governments was, at the same time, a commentary on the potential threat from Indonesia. The two critical episodes examined here, the West New Guinea dispute and Indonesia’s declared intention to crush the newly formed Federation of Malaysia (Confrontation or Konfrontasi), were considered by the Menzies and Holt Cabinets on over sixty occasions in specific detail or in the context of analysing Australia’s strategic environment. On nearly each occasion ministers linked Indonesia’s actions to possible threats to Papua New Guinea. Such was the level of concern generated by Indonesia’s threats that Prime Minister Menzies, at the height of Confrontation, repeatedly declared that Australia would defend Papua New Guinea against any infiltration or aggression by Indonesia – and that the United States, courtesy of the ANZUS Treaty, would be by Australia’s side. The historian Gregory Pemberton has described a possible Indonesian threat to Papua New Guinea as the casus belli in Australia’s response to Indonesia’s attempts to crush Malaysia.18 Both episodes studied are as much an examination of the place of Indonesia in Australia’s security assessments over the period 1949–1966 as they are of Papua New Guinea’s place in that environment.

However, it should be borne in mind that this book is not a detailed study of either episode. There is now a strong and exemplary body of published work on both. The official histories of Australia’s involvement in Southeast Asian conflicts between 1948–1975, such as those by Peter Edwards, Gregory Pemberton, Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey, provide a comprehensive account of the decision-making behind Australia’s involvement in all the major crises of the period and are an essential reference for this study.19 Rather, this book uses these two critical episodes to illustrate the place of Papua New Guinea in Australia’s security environment and the debate within the Australian Government over the need to provide for the defence of Papua New Guinea. The case studies provide an essential background to understanding the strength and depth of Australia’s belief that Papua New Guinea was a pivotal component in the defence of Australia.

A study of these two major disputes is best and uniquely seen through extensive references to the Australian Cabinet discussions recorded in the highly classified Cabinet Notebooks. Knowing that their views would not be made public for fifty years and often with no officials other than the Cabinet Secretary present, ministers spoke candidly and frankly of their suspicions and fears of how Australia should respond to developments in Asia, particularly Indonesia, as well as their doubts and anxieties about Australia’s capacity to defend its interests. The Notebooks were not shown to ministers to be corrected or edited which adds to their value. Often punctuation marks were not included. In 1972 Prime Minister William McMahon told his Cabinet colleagues that the Notebooks should be destroyed. Fortunately for historians this suggestion was not implemented.20 They are a rich treasure trove of information and insights and change many of the established assessments of the way Australian governments viewed and responded to the changes in Australia’s security environment.

For the first time these minutes will be drawn on extensively to expand on the work of Edwards, Pemberton, Garry Woodard, John Subritzky, David Lee, Stuart Doran, David Lowe, David Goldsworthy, Moreen Dee and other historians who have examined this period, to illustrate the argument that the Cabinet was more deeply worried by the changing security environment in Southeast Asia than previously realised. At the same time the Notebooks reveal that ministers in the Menzies and Holt Governments were acutely aware of the implications of the actions they took for Australia’s relations with the rest of Asia. Ministers were reflecting on these connections much earlier and in a much broader context than historians to date have been able to acknowledge. Similarly, the Notebooks reveal Australian ministers were less confident of the actions and reliability of Australia’s major allies, notably the United States, in coming to their aid than research to date has shown. The views of Prime Minister Menzies and John McEwen, Deputy Prime Minister from 1958 and Leader of the Country Party, were particularly influential and will be followed in detail.21 McEwen’s leading role in guiding the development of Australia’s foreign policy towards Southeast Asia will, for the first time, be described. No decision on Australia’s foreign and security policies from mid-1950 to 1970 was taken without his involvement and agreement.

The dramatic internal political developments in Indonesia in 1965 and the abandonment of the policy of Konfrontasi by the Suharto Government forced a reappraisal by Australia of its immediate security environment. Indonesia retained a critical place in strategic assessments into the 1980s but the focus was now on managing the international border between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, the problem of border-crossers and the activities of pro-independence movements based in Irian Jaya. The rise to power of General Suharto was a positive development for Australia in one respect as it removed the need to focus on external military threats to Papua New Guinea. Indeed, the long history of Australia viewing the vulnerability of Papua New Guinea through external reference points all but ended at this point. In its place came concerns over the internal political stability and cohesion of Papua New Guinea. These concerns were to dominate the thinking of decision-makers from the late 1960s through to the post-independence period.

In the critical period (1970–1975) leading to Papua New Guinea’s independence on 16 September 1975 Australia’s assessment of its own interests shifted dramatically. Australian decision-makers became increasingly preoccupied by the uncertain and unstable internal security situation taking hold of the country. The disturbances associated with the riots in the Gazelle Peninsula in 1970, the political demands from the Papua Besena separatist movement, the long-standing secessionist claims of the leaders of the island of Bougainville and the continuing problem of tribal fighting in the Highlands, as well as more generalised fears about the internal law and order issues facing the country, contributed to an overwhelming determination by senior Australian officials and ministers not to be held hostage to a potentially unstable Papua New Guinea. Australian governments were deeply concerned that an unqualified commitment to defend Papua New Guinea would become a factor in PNG’s own calculations and could lead it to pursue immoderate or risky policies, confident of Australian support.

This book will examine in detail the negotiations over the terms of the future defence relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Particular attention will be given to the groundbreaking report ‘Australia’s Defence Relations with Papua New Guinea’ examined by the Defence Committee in November 1973. The radical shifts in opinion set out in the Committee’s assessment and later endorsed by the then Minister for Defence, Lance Barnard, questioned and qualified nearly a century of assumptions about the importance of Papua New Guinea to Australia’s strategic environment. Australia sought to promote its defence interests in Papua New Guinea by ensuring that it became and remained that country’s primary defence partner through a defence cooperation program rather than a treaty-based commitment.

The uncertainty generated by the speed of the process of preparing Papua New Guinea for independence in 1975; the realisation by the Whitlam Government that, given its sensitivity, the terms of a long-term defence relationship could only be negotiated with the government of a post-independent Papua New Guinea; and then the dramatic political events in Australia of November 1975 meant that responsibility for the final negotiations was passed to the Fraser Government. Fraser had little difficulty in accepting the limited nature of the defence arrangements proposed while, at the same time, confirming the objective of establishing Australia as Papua New Guinea’s primary defence partner.

A postscript will examine the Hawke Government’s early views on the strategic importance of Papua New Guinea and its subsequent decision to accept Papua New Guinea’s initiative to sign a Joint Declaration of Principles aimed at setting out the fundamentals of the post-independence relationship, including the terms of a revised long-term defence understanding. The recent revision of the Joint Declaration signed in 2013 will also be discussed. Both documents are statements of political intent. The defence commitment from Australia has been left as a matter of trust rather than of obligation.

Finally, the author hopes that this book responds to the challenge posed by the noted journalist and observer of Papua New Guinea, Sean Dorney, in his recent book, The Embarrassed Colonialist, for Australians to return to the study of the relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea and to demonstrate a renewed interest in trying to understand our shared history.22

* * *

History of the name ‘Papua New Guinea’

In 1971 the House of Assembly in Port Moresby determined that the country would be called Papua New Guinea. Prior to this decision and from 1949 the country had been called the Territory of Papua and New Guinea and administered as such. This term reflected the separate histories of the two former territories. In 1884 Imperial Germany had taken control of the northeast quadrant of the island and the adjoining islands in the Bismarck Archipelago, including West and East New Britain, New Ireland and Bougainville. In 1884 Britain had formally annexed the southeast quadrant known as Papua. In September 1906 Australia assumed responsibility for British New Guinea and renamed it the Territory of Papua. In 1920, as part of the peace settlement following the First World War, Australia was granted a mandate from the League of Nations over the former German New Guinea.23 The mandated territory of New Guinea was administered by Australia from 9 May 1921. In 1942, following the outbreak of war, Papua and New Guinea were placed under Australian military administration. At the end of the war civil administration of the territories was progressively restored under the Papua New Guinea Provisional Administration Act (1945–1946). In December 1946 the United Nations General Assembly approved the terms of a trusteeship agreement for the territory of New Guinea. In 1949 under the terms of the Papua and New Guinea Act (1949) the two halves, Papua and New Guinea, were placed under joint administration from Port Moresby under the title ‘Territory of Papua and New Guinea’, although New Guinea remained a trusteeship of the United Nations. The Territory became an independent country on 16 September 1975.

At times ‘Australian New Guinea’ or ‘Eastern New Guinea’ were used in public discussion as an easy reference to Papua New Guinea. To add to the confusion Australian ministers and officials, including Prime Minister Whitlam, also had the habit of informally referring to Papua New Guinea as ‘New Guinea’.

Australia's Northern Shield?

   by Bruce Hunt