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Australia's Northern Shield?

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Chapter 4

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THE WEST NEW GUINEA DISPUTE 1952–1956

‘The holding of Australian New Guinea is … vital to the defence of Australia. The aim of national defence policy in relation to New Guinea must therefore be directed to the maintenance of Australia’s control of Australian New Guinea’.

Defence Committee Report, 1956

The newly appointed Minister for External Affairs, Richard Casey, brought to the position a wealth of experience as a parliamentarian and diplomat. Born in 1890 he had served at Gallipoli and on the Western Front in the First World War. Following the war he had been sent to London as Australia’s diplomatic liaison officer. Casey had first entered the Australian Parliament in 1931 and had served as Treasurer in the Lyons Government from 1935 until 1939. He held ambitions to succeed Lyons as Prime Minister but he failed to win the leadership of the United Australia Party in a contest with Robert Menzies. He had resigned from Parliament shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War to accept Menzies’s offer to serve as Australia’s first resident minister in Washington – in effect Australia’s diplomatic representative in Washington. In 1942 he accepted Winston Churchill’s invitation to serve as Britain’s Minister Resident in Cairo and then, in 1944, as Governor of Bengal. In 1949, at the age of 59, Casey re-entered Parliament and was appointed Minister for Supply and Development, later renamed National Development, in the first Menzies ministry. His early years as a diplomat in London and Washington had demonstrated his remarkable ability to win and retain friendships and confi-dences with the widest range of counterparts. He was to exploit this capacity further as Minister for External Affairs. Casey’s weakness was an inability to carry an argument in the robust world of Australian Cabinet politics and decision-making. Paul Hasluck, his ministerial colleague for ten years, described him as ‘ineffective’ in Cabinet.1 Casey retired from Parliament in February 1960. He was appointed Governor-General of Australia from 1965 to 1969.

At the time of Casey’s appointment as Minister for External Affairs Australia’s immediate security environment was deeply troubling. Australia had 5000 troops overseas in Korea, Japan and Malaya. The war in Korea and the involvement of China represented a major threat to world peace. The Emergency in Malaya was in its third year and the communist guerilla insurgency showed little sign of easing. Australian forces were still in Korea as part of a sixteen-nation United Nations sponsored coalition, while units of the Royal Australian Air Force had been deployed to Malaya to assist the British to put down the insurgency.2 China posed a direct challenge to the Nationalist Government on Formosa. The French faced defeat in Vietnam. In Europe, Cold War tensions remained high. On a positive note, on 1 September 1951, Australia, New Zealand and the United States signed the ANZUS Treaty with its undertaking that if an armed attack occurred in the ‘Pacific area on any of the parties’ each party would ‘act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes’.3 In October 1953, at a meeting in Melbourne, allied defence planners developed further the original concepts underlying ANZAM (Australia, New Zealand and Malaya). With its focus on Malaya, ANZAM had been created to expedite planning for the deployment of British, Australian and New Zealand forces in Malaya. ANZAM cemented further the idea of a forward defence strategy as the principle underpinning Australia’s military planning.4 It also confirmed the gradual change in Australia’s defence planning that had been occurring in discussions beginning in 1950 from acceptance of a role in the Middle East to involvement in a more narrowly defined region of Southeast Asia.5 Hence events and developments north and south of Malaya, including Indonesia, became of increasing importance in Australia’s strategic outlook. In 1954 Australia accepted a further commitment to assist in the defence of Southeast Asia when it signed the South East Asia Collective Defence Treaty (SEATO). SEATO brought a wider range of states interested in the security of Asia, including Britain and France, into a closer defence relationship with Australia, but proved to be a weak reed when placed under pressure.6

Maintaining the diplomatic campaign

Casey did not deviate from the policy on West New Guinea established by Spender. One of his first overseas visits was to Jakarta in August 1951. He did not see President Sukarno and the West New Guinea issue was not raised by any Indonesian minister. For his part Casey ‘refrained from raising the issue’ partly at the wish of the Dutch Government.7 Later in the year Casey told the Indonesian Ambassador in Canberra, Dr Oetoyo, that he had to date ‘observed almost superhuman discretion’ with regard to Dutch New Guinea. He reminded the Ambassador that it ‘was a subject on which the Australian public was likely to be explosive – and I only hoped that it would be dropped as a subject of public discussion’. Casey told the Ambassador that Australia wanted to be friends with Indonesia but that ‘nothing was more likely to disturb and muddy our relations as the possibility of Dutch New Guinea becoming a gambit’.8 He made a similar point to the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Subardjo, at a meeting in Paris in November 1951. At that meeting he had told his Indonesian counterpart that it was ‘essential to the future welfare of his country and mine to avoid trouble over New Guinea, a subject on which Australians were apt to see red’.9

In a visit to The Hague in November 1951 Casey told the Dutch Government that ‘the Australian view was unchanged. This was a subject on which Australian public opinion had the strongest views. The Australian Government was completely behind the Netherlands Government in its determination to maintain New Guinea under Dutch control’.10 The Dutch Prime Minister, Dr Drees, told Casey that in his view the United States and the United Kingdom were at best preoccupied with other major cold-war related issues (the war in Korea was at its height) or at worse ambivalent in their commitment to the Dutch position. He encouraged Casey to lobby the Americans and to ‘stress to Acheson [Secretary of State] that Australia would take it very badly if there were a change in the status quo in New Guinea’. Casey followed Menzies’s example and wrote to Acheson in December 1951. On 19 January 1952, again encouraged by the Dutch who were uncertain as to the strength of Britain’s commitment, he wrote to his British counterpart and good friend, the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. He ignored the advice given by Bevin to Menzies in January 1951 that Australia should attach the highest priority to developing relations with Indonesia and told Eden that:

It would be unfortunate if the Indonesians were to become our immediate and close neighbours in New Guinea. The Indonesian Government is weak politically and militarily. Their lack of political stability is such that they might swing rather wildly to the left at any time – and might be induced to agree to immigration arrangements in respect of Dutch New Guinea that would allow Japanese and even doubtful Chinese to enter Dutch New Guinea in numbers. Moreover the terrain is such that infiltration – by Indonesians and others – into our part of New Guinea would be difficult to stop. This could well create difficult problems in respect of Australian New Guinea. All these things are well in the minds of our people here and generate a good deal of anxiety.11

Casey’s references to Japanese migrants ‘and even doubtful Chinese’ was strongly reminiscent of the arguments pursued by Australian politicians over previous decades as they defended the ‘White Australia’ policy. The reference to infiltration by ‘Indonesians and others’ also reflected claims by Australians in Papua and New Guinea at the time, picked up by the Australian press and reported in alarming tones, that ‘infiltrators’ had been spotted crossing the border and ‘spying out the land’.12 Casey also carried forward the concept that the island of New Guinea must be assessed as one political and strategic unit rather than two political jurisdictions. What affected West New Guinea was, in Australia’s mind, of direct relevance to Papua New Guinea. Casey’s objective was also to keep the issue of the future of Dutch New Guinea in ‘cold storage’ for as long as possible. In this he repeatedly turned to the United Kingdom to lobby the United States on Australia’s behalf.

Casey had his first opportunity to put Australia’s case directly to President Sukarno when he visited Jakarta on 5 April 1952. Unlike Spender, Casey did not baulk at the chance. According to his diary entry Casey drew Sukarno’s attention to the lessons for Australia of the Second World War. He argued that there was ‘an attitude of mind in Australia that New Guinea as a whole is important to us and that we have to ensure that even West New Guinea has to be in hands that will be secure’. He sought from Sukarno a ‘most confident and close relationship’ but said that ‘nothing was likely to disturb this relationship so quickly or so gravely as Indonesia getting sovereignty over West New Guinea. Any change in sovereignty … would set the whole Australian people aflame’. When Casey raised a concern about the likelihood that should Indonesia gain sovereignty over West New Guinea it was likely to claim the east as well, Sukarno, according to Casey’s account, offered him not only his hand that it would never happen ‘but my whole arm – my arm will be the forfeit that that will never happen’.13 According to a later departmental briefing note – which made no reference to Sukarno’s assurances – Casey had also told the President that ‘the New Guinea issue should not be allowed to develop and cut across the close and confidential relationship necessary to stand against the threat from the north. Soekarno however remained unconvinced. … The Minister made it quite clear that Australia supported the retention of Dutch sovereignty over the area’.14

Despite Sukarno’s personal assurance and a subsequent similar statement to the press a few months later that Indonesia ‘had no aspirations towards East New Guinea – no aspirations at all’ and ‘There is no threat to East New Guinea and that area will not be in danger when West Irian is in Indonesian hands’, Australia remained highly sceptical and mistrustful.15 Casey again wrote to Eden informing him of his discussions with Sukarno. He again expressed his concerns ‘about the possibility of infiltration into Eastern New Guinea and the particular use which might be made of Western New Guinea’. Casey added that should a ‘leftist’ government come to power ‘all these difficulties would be amplified many times’ and said that ‘such a situation would create in Australia a degree of anxiety which could be explosive’.16

Casey did not see Indonesia in a totally negative light. Like Spender, he realised that a relationship had to be established regardless of the West New Guinea dispute. In a press statement released on 6 February 1952, in the midst of Australia’s lobbying to ensure the dispute remained in ‘cold storage’, he said that Australia had ‘every desire to work closely, harmoniously and constructively [with Indonesia] … [and] desires close and friendly relationships with Indonesia and will do its best to secure them’. He cited Australia’s wish to have Indonesia join the Colombo Plan and to provide technical assistance to Indonesia as a sign of Australia’s intent. He placed the relationship in the context of the joint need to deal effectively with the ‘risk of an attempted southwards drive by Communism in Asia’.17 But developing the relationship would come second to the management of the dispute over West New Guinea and on that point he reiterated firmly Australia’s opposition to a change in sovereignty.

More diplomatic pressure

Menzies travelled to London in late May 1952, where he held six meetings with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his senior ministers on international security issues, defence policy and defence procurement. Menzies briefed Churchill and Eden on the recently signed ANZUS Treaty. He described it as means for Australia to gain a closer knowledge of US strategic and military planning, particularly in Southeast Asia. He told Churchill that he was not prepared to reopen the question of the membership of ANZUS to include Britain as this could see the revival of an earlier US suggestion that the Treaty include Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia. He made clear to Churchill that ‘the Australian public opinion would not tolerate the inclusion of Indonesia or Japan’ in the pact.18 Menzies was correct in his assessment of Australian public opinion.

Menzies discussed the question of West New Guinea with Eden on 3 June. He made clear his concern that the Dutch would weaken and cede the territory if Indonesia would guarantee the security of Dutch commercial interests in the country. As to the political outlook for Indonesia and the impact of absorbing West New Guinea, Menzies was explicit in his view that:

it was very doubtful if the Indonesian Government were firmly enough established to take on a new commitment of this kind. Above all, the presence of a weak and unreliable Government on the very frontiers of Australia would make it extremely difficult for any Australian Government in the future to accept overseas commitments in war. It was most important that the Dutch Government should be encouraged to stand firm.19

Eden undertook to continue to do ‘everything in his power’ to hold the Dutch to their position and to encourage the United States to remain supportive. In a letter from Eden to Casey dated 24 June 1952, Eden told Casey that he had raised the issue with Secretary of State Acheson, reminding him that Casey had ‘written stressing the strength of Australian public opinion against any change of sovereignty in Netherlands New Guinea’. Acheson had ‘entirely agreed’ that the issue should be left in ‘cold storage’ and that ‘there had been no change in the American point of view on the subject’. Eden told Casey that he could see no ‘reason why you, we and the Americans should not continue to maintain a united front on this issue’.20

The reference in Menzies’s meeting with Eden to the difficulty Australia would face in accepting any future overseas commitment in war reflected discussions which had been underway in Canberra for a number of months about whether Australia could maintain its post-war commitment to deploy forces to the Middle East given the deteriorating military outlook in Asia.21 Menzies had made clear to Churchill in their meeting on 27 May that:

If … before a world war started the whole of South-East Asia had been lost to Communism and Chinese Communist influence had spread into Indonesia and New Guinea, it would be very difficult for any Australian Government to support a policy for sending Divisions and Air Forces to the Middle East in war.22

He was more explicit in his second meeting with Churchill on 29 May when he said that ‘if communism had spread through South-East Asia and Indonesia, it would be difficult for any Australian Government to send forces overseas’.23

The six meetings had enabled Menzies to alert his British counterparts to Australia’s decision to refocus its strategic outlook and priorities. David Lowe has suggested that Menzies had yet to be fully convinced of the need to redirect Australia’s war effort away from a contribution to allied efforts in the Middle East and to Southeast Asia.24 The strength of his argument in London would indicate that by mid-1952 he had made that adjustment and, as Peter Edwards has argued in his study of the development of the concept of ‘forward defence’ in Australia’s security outlook, the government was now focused on the need to meet the challenges emerging in Asia.25 The discussions in London had also allowed Menzies to press the point that the Australian public would object if Australian forces were to be deployed to distant areas such as the Middle East should Southeast Asia came under threat. He did, however, temper the negative nature of this message by advising the British Government of his government’s decision to strengthen Australia’s defence preparedness with the Navy to be increased to 17,000 men with 10,000 in reserve, the Army to be increased from 26,000 to 33,000 regular troops plus a citizen force of 97,000 including 67,500 National Service trainees, and the Air Force to be strengthened to 17 squadrons and 17,000 men.26 Menzies did not comment on whether Australia could sustain this level of preparedness but he appeared to be a little more confident of Australia’s defence readiness than in 1950 when he had told his Cabinet colleagues that ‘we have an extensive building programme but we don’t build anything which we want’.27

Despite the reassurances from Eden, the Menzies Cabinet continued to fear that a change of government or a new coalition of ministers in The Hague might lead to a change in policy. In part these concerns were allayed by the visit to Canberra in July 1953 of the Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs, Joseph Luns. Luns, whom Casey described as a ‘great big pleasant intelligent extrovert’, had been, and continued throughout the decade to be, the most determined and immovable advocate of Dutch policy towards retaining sovereignty.28 His visit coincided with the presentation in Canberra of a Dutch aide memoire which stated that sovereignty over Dutch New Guinea continued to be vested in the Netherlands; the Netherlands would be prepared to give a guarantee that West New Guinea would not be used as a basis for action against Indonesia; the Netherlands was resolved to resist Indonesian actions directed against Dutch New Guinea; and the Netherlands was willing to cooperate with countries interested in the South Pacific.29 Luns told Casey that he had been ‘loudly applauded’ by the New South Wales (Labor) Government at a luncheon when he had said the Netherlands intended to retain New Guinea ‘for all eternity’.30

Luns’s conversations with Casey concentrated on areas for cooperation between the two territories and he appears to have raised the issue of defence and military cooperation only in a private meeting with Alan Watt, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, and then only in the broader context of defence arrangements in the Pacific. Luns had told Watt that ‘the Dutch would, if necessary, defend New Guinea and were quite capable of doing so’.31 It appears that Luns may have been more serious in his wish for a defence agreement with Australia than the report of his meeting with Watt suggests. In 1955 Alfred Stirling, who had been Ambassador in The Hague in 1953, recalled in a letter to Casey that ‘Luns was anxious to bind the Dutch Government by a defence agreement with us for N. G. [New Guinea]’.32 There is no other evidence available to elaborate on what Luns had in mind or how the issue was managed.

The fact that Luns had not raised the question of possible defence cooperation with Australia covering West New Guinea did not stop a suspicious Indonesian Government from speculating that both countries had entered into such an arrangement. Indonesia eventually sought an assurance from Luns that no ‘treaty’ had been entered into and that Australia’s cooperation with the Netherlands extended only to administrative arrangements.33

Australian ministers nevertheless remained anxious that the Dutch could change their policy approach and seek a settlement with Indonesia. Alfred Stirling provided Casey with a number of reports on the strength of views of members of the Dutch Parliament. In an assessment of the visit by Luns to Canberra, Stirling told Casey of Luns’s positive reaction to his meetings in Australia but, at the same time, warned that ‘Luns (had) put Dutch parliamentary feeling about the retention of New Guinea a good deal too high. … He is too optimistic’.34 Stirling later advised Casey that ‘Dutch opinion for the retention of New Guinea can never be taken for granted without our constant attention. … (a change in attitude) could happen quickly’.35 The question of whether the Dutch could pull out or be forced to compromise weighed heavily on the minds of ministers and featured in a number of discussions in the Cabinet room throughout the decade.

A revised strategic assessment

The views expressed by Menzies in London formed the foundation of the Strategic Basis Paper on Australian Defence Policy endorsed by the Defence Committee on 8 January 1953.36 The paper confirmed the shift in focus from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. It emphasised the importance of holding Indochina for the defence of Southeast Asia and for providing ‘defence in depth’ to Australia and New Zealand.37 It attached critical importance to defending Malaya. If Malaya fell in a global war a ‘steady infiltration of communists throughout the islands of Indonesia could follow’ and Australia would be ‘confronted in due course by hostile land and air forces within 500 miles of the Northern Territory and have a common frontier with the communists in New Guinea’.38 Even in a Cold War scenario it argued that if Malaya were lost and the communists ‘successfully infiltrate throughout Indonesia, the threat to sea communications would be increased and a direct air threat to the mainland of Australia would exist’.39 Australia would have to respond with ‘ground forces for the occupation of the Island Chain (Admiralty Islands [Manus Island], New Guinea, the coastal waters of North and North-West Australia and the Cocos Islands)’ as well as forces for the defence of sea communications.40 The paper endorsed the concept of defending Australia through a system of frontiers or perimeters beginning in northeast Asia and descending first to Malaya, then the island of New Guinea and finally the northern coastline of Australia.41 Malaya was the key barrier in the perimeter. The concepts were captured in the subsequent planning undertaken under the aegis of ANZAM. They had become central to Australia’s thinking about its outer defence perimeter.

Cabinet again anxious

In August 1954 Cabinet again examined Australia’s approach to the West New Guinea issue following reports that Indonesia intended to take its claim to the United Nations.42 Ministers were suspicious. Casey told them of comments he had heard that Indonesia had ‘thoughts of Australian New Guinea, Timor and British North Borneo’.43 He did not provide any evidence as to the source of these comments but they were sufficient to cause alarm. Casey argued that if Indonesia were successful it would set a precedent for India to ‘pinch off’ Portuguese Goa to which Menzies added that ‘Goa [would be] a precedent for Hong Kong, then New Guinea, then Malaya’.44 John McEwen (Minister for Commerce and Agriculture) was equally suspicious and commented that the United States ‘probably think we’re right but will ditch us [Australia] to maintain persona grata with Indonesia to combat communism’.45 Ministers were equally alarmed at the prospect of Indonesia succeeding in securing sufficient votes in the UN General Assembly to force negotiations. Menzies told his colleagues that ‘if UN votes West New Guinea to Indonesia – then ours’, i.e. Papua New Guinea, would become the subject of debate in the United Nations with some countries arguing for independence. McEwen added a strange twist to the scenario by noting that ‘West New Guinea under Indonesia will endeavor to bring in Japs’. McEwen’s comments reflected the concern contained in Casey’s letter to Eden in January 1952 and the deep-seated Australian fear of Asian states and populations coming into ever closer proximity to Australia and Australian interests. Menzies concluded the discussion by noting that Australia should again speak to the United States and Britain at the forthcoming SEATO meeting on the ‘implications of New Guinea on Australia’s capacity to take [a] hand in SEATO, for with Indonesia in possession of New Guinea Australia must go entirely on the defensive and be last to making a contribution to South East Asia’.46

In the discussions in Cabinet Menzies had also raised in an incidental way the question of purchasing Dutch New Guinea. McEwen and Senator William Spooner (Minister for National Development and a powerful figure within the New South Wales Branch of the Liberal Party) supported the idea (‘Aye, Aye’) but Casey pointed out that it would ‘land us with a bone of contention with Indonesia’.47 The formal minute prepared to capture the outcome of the debate noted that Cabinet had discussed the question of possibly buying West New Guinea but had agreed that while ‘there was a lot to be said’ for this option ‘if that were possible’, it would put Australia into the dispute with Indonesia in place of the Dutch’.48

Throughout the remainder of the decade Australian diplomacy was focused on efforts to block attempts by Jakarta to have the United Nations call on Indonesia and the Netherlands to negotiate a settlement of the issue. Australia sought and gained the support of Britain with the Foreign Office instructing its diplomatic missions to lobby on behalf of the Australian objectives. In November 1954 Casey also wrote directly to the newly appointed US Under Secretary of State, Herbert Hoover Jnr, seeking US support in the United Nations. The letter was a continuation of the effort begun by Menzies in 1951 to secure United States support for Australia’s stance. Casey again set out in detail all the arguments which had characterised Australia’s representations to date: the whole of the island was a ‘vital part of the island chain in the Western Pacific’; if it passed ‘into the hands of a government of doubtful stability and sympathies the strength of the island chain would be endangered’; Australia’s situation if New Guinea passed to Indonesia would be ‘serious’; Indonesia’s attitude to opposing communism did not ‘inspire … great confidence’; Dutch control ‘ensures the preservation of the eventual freedom of choice of the inhabitants’; the Netherlands Government ‘is in a far better position from a financial, scientific and administrative point of view to benefit the indigenous population’; Indonesia had no claim on ‘ethnic grounds’; public opinion in Australia was ‘understandably strong as a result of the events of the war against Japan – and before that, of our military problems with the Germans in the first war’; and Australia ‘cannot and will not countenance’ the transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia. Casey concluded by noting ‘I cannot stress too strongly the vital interest which the Australian Government has in this matter’.49 Casey’s arguments reflected Australia’s deepening suspicions towards Indonesia and a continued preference for the status quo.

The Australian approach placed the United States in an awkward position. The Truman and Eisenhower Administrations had followed a policy of non-involvement. The United States did not wish to offend either of the principals (the Netherlands or Indonesia) while at the same time it understood the attitude of countries such as Australia. Its first priority, as Secretary of State Dulles explained to Menzies in March 1955, was in ‘keeping Indonesia with its 80 million people from falling into Communist hands’. However, ‘if it came to a real showdown about New Guinea, then the United States would back Australia ‘right or wrong’.50

Casey continued to be sensitive to the problems created by Australia’s firm stance on the West New Guinea dispute for the development of a bilateral relationship with Indonesia. In June 1955 he told his Cabinet colleagues:

So long as the West New Guinea issue is outstanding between us – for at any rate the foreseeable future – we must take it as a fact that this may prejudice friendly relations between Australia and Indonesia, that it impedes cooperation, that it will be a focus of discontent in Indonesia not only against Australia but to some extent against the West generally, and that it will be a theme on which Communist propaganda can play and on which Communist and anti-Western feeling can centre.51

Casey argued, and his colleagues accepted, that Australia would be facing a difficult battle at successive meetings of the UN General Assembly to deny Indonesia the two-thirds majority it needed to secure acceptance of its resolution calling for negotiations between it and the Dutch. In a wide-ranging discussion of policy options, ministers rejected the idea that the dispute might be referred to the International Court of Justice for adjudication. Menzies told his colleagues such a move would be a ‘complete gamble’ and that he had ‘no faith’ in an approach to the Court. Paul Hasluck (Minister for Territories) agreed with Menzies and added that an approach to the Court would ‘admit doubts as to sovereignty’, while McEwen thought such a step by Australia would ‘allow an outside body to hand Dutch New Guinea to potential communists’.52 (Ministers abandoned their concerns in 1959 when, in discussion with the visiting Indonesian Foreign Minister, Menzies and others suggested Indonesia take the issue to the Court. See Chapter 5.)

As the discussion in Cabinet continued Menzies reiterated the argument that ‘it is vital that there be no Communist Government adjacent to Australian territory and that is possible. … Australian public opinion will be revolted if they get access’. The Minister for Defence (McBride) agreed with his colleagues that the issue was ‘vital’ for Australia but argued that Australia had to ‘do more than talk’. He suggested a program of cooperation with the Dutch on subjects such as trade and communications. He called for ‘physical help not eloquent speeches’. Hasluck agreed that Australia should discuss with the Dutch enhanced cooperation between the two halves of the island and posed the question of whether we ‘are prepared to envisage linking East and West New Guinea [and] say jointly with Dutch we are working to objective – in far future – to unification’. He accepted that such a proposal ‘involves [a] trick of placing [the] fate of our territory in same basket as Dutch New Guinea’. Menzies endorsed McBride and Hasluck’s idea of discussions with the Dutch.53

Casey continued to grapple with the two seemingly incompatible goals of strengthening the bilateral relationship with Indonesia and maintaining the government’s policy on West New Guinea. He again visited Indonesia from 29 October to 2 November 1955. Prior to the visit the Indonesian Government had sent out feelers through India and the United States suggesting that it was prepared to enter into a Treaty of Friendship with Australia.54 Casey and his department elected to respond to the suggestion by noting that it was ‘something Australia did not do’.55 In Canberra’s eyes it was something third world or communist countries sought as a means of furthering a diplomatic relationship. Instead, it agreed to an Indonesian initiative that the two Foreign Ministers issue a Joint Statement on the bilateral relationship. The four paragraph statement issued during Casey’s visit noted that the two countries were ‘close neighbours and having a wide range of interests in common should make joint efforts to develop the greatest possible degree of cooperation’. The two ministers also declared that the two countries would ‘respect each other’s independence and territorial integrity and abstain from intervention or interference in each other’s affairs’. Finally, on the critical issue of West New Guinea, the two ministers agreed that ‘whilst maintaining their respective views … the matter should be dealt with by peaceful discussion and with the firm desire to uphold peace and stability in the South East Asian area’.56

In guidance sent to Australian diplomatic missions Casey said the reference to ‘peaceful discussion’ did not represent a change in Australia’s policy. Australia continued to recognise Dutch sovereignty over West New Guinea and preferred to leave the issue in ‘cold storage’ and to ‘concentrate on developing positive measures of cooperation’.57 The Dutch, nevertheless, objected strongly to the reference to ‘discussions’. Luns called in the Australian Ambassador to object. He saw the expression as implying doubt over Dutch sovereignty and was adamant that there ‘could not and would not be any discussion whatsoever on the question of the sovereignty of West New Guinea’.58 This would not be the last time that an effort by Casey to put on paper the Australian Government’s views on the terms of a settlement would cause him diplomatic and political difficulties. He was to experience a similar controversy in 1959 when the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Dr Subandrio, visited Australia.

A mid-decade review

For six years Australia had been pursuing a twin policy of developing the bilateral relationship with Indonesia while maintaining support for the continuation of Dutch sovereignty over Dutch New Guinea. Government officials, particularly those in the Department of External Affairs, were acutely aware that the attempt to build the relationship was being frustrated by Australia’s rejection of Indonesia’s claims. K. C. O. (Mick) Shann, a senior officer in the Department of External Affairs, who had represented Australia as an observer at the Asian-African Conference of newly independent states at Bandung, Indonesia, in May 1955, had told Canberra that ‘there does not seem to be much doubt that our good relations with Indonesia rest on a solution to the problem of West New Guinea’. Moreover, it was time for Australia to ‘make an assessment as to whether the continued presence of the Dutch in Western New Guinea is more important to our security than friendly relations with Indonesia’.59 He urged Canberra to take the initiative and suggest to the Dutch that they discuss the issue with Indonesia. Even Spender, writing from Washington, had suggested to the newly appointed Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Arthur Tange, that, although still fully supportive of continued Dutch control over West New Guinea, he believed a ‘thorough re-examination of the problem was necessary’.60

While not responding directly to Shann’s and Spender’s suggestions, Tange was receptive to the idea of a fundamental reassessment of the principles and assumptions underlying Australia’s strategic assessment of Dutch New Guinea. He wrote to the Secretary of the Department of Defence (Sir Frederick Shedden) on 13 March 1956 suggesting that the Defence Committee prepare a new appreciation of the strategic importance of the island of New Guinea.61

In his letter, Tange, who possessed one of the finest analytical minds in the Australian public service, at first deconstructed the arguments which had characterised all post-war assessments. He noted that Australia’s support for the retention of Dutch or ‘friendly’ control over West New Guinea was ‘the foundation of a most important area of Australia’s external political policy’. At the same time, the issue of sovereignty over West New Guinea was the ‘major obstacle in the way of good relations between Australia and Indonesia’ and that it would continue to be so as the issue was now one of ‘national aspiration’ for all Indonesian political parties, even the moderate parties. He argued that should a ‘left-wing extremist Government under the dominance of Sukarno be formed we could expect the claim to be taken up and made a serious issue with Australia’. Tange was worried that a left-leaning, if not communist, government could emerge in Indonesia which would be ‘more neutralist and relatively unfriendly’. As to the Dutch, Tange questioned whether it should be regarded that ‘any future Netherlands Government will necessarily pursue as firm a policy as the present Drees Government’. Moreover, ‘consideration of Australian wishes is unlikely to affect Netherlands decisions, if only because Australia is regarded in part responsible for the loss of Indonesia from Netherlands’ colonial control’.

Tange argued for a new appreciation based on the ‘balance of advantages and disadvantages’ of the strategic significance of West New Guinea ‘in the defence of Australia and in relation to the SEATO area’. He suggested the appreciation needed to consider the ‘whole island, the inter-relationship of the two parts and their individual relationship to the whole island’. He specifically asked the review to examine ‘the tenability of Eastern New Guinea if West New Guinea were occupied by hostile forces’.62

The Defence Committee issued its report in May 1956. It set out the most comprehensive description of Papua New Guinea’s strategic importance to Australia. In doing so it often returned to language similar to that used before and during the First World War. It argued that:

Australian New Guinea provides a most suitable area from which to launch air and sea attacks on the vital east coast of Australia and the communications to it, and would also provide the best area for mounting an invasion of eastern Australia. It also provides Australia and her Allies with potential forward bases from which operations could be mounted against attacks from the northwest. Conversely, while it remains in our hands, it provides additional depth for the defence of Australia and is essential in our last outer ring of defence, i.e. Cocos Island–Darwin–New Guinea–Manus. Moreover, Australian New Guinea is a vital link between Australia and the chain of islands through the Philippines to Japan, all of which are closely associated with the United States system of defence in the Western Pacific. The holding of Australian New Guinea is therefore vital to the defence of Australia. The aim of national defence policy in relation to New Guinea must therefore be directed to the maintenance of Australia’s control of Australian New Guinea.63

In examining the relationship between the two halves of the island the report argued that ‘the security of Australian New Guinea depends largely on Dutch New Guinea being occupied by a power which is neither hostile nor potentially hostile to Australia’. In friendly hands Dutch New Guinea provided greater depth for the defence of Australia and Australian New Guinea, bases which could be used by Australian and allied forces, and an assurance that sea and air bases in West New Guinea would be denied to a potential enemy. In contrast, in hostile, or potentially hostile, hands it could be possible for ‘subversive and/or hostile elements to be infiltrated into Australian New Guinea which could, in time, create a serious threat to internal security’. Moreover, Dutch New Guinea could be used as a base, in time of war, from which sea, land and air operations could be mounted against Australian New Guinea. It was therefore ‘most important for the defence of Australian New Guinea and the Island Chain that Dutch New Guinea should not be controlled by or available to a hostile or potentially hostile power’.64

The report then focused on the question of a communist or non-communist Indonesia and made clear that ‘only if it were certain that in the long term Indonesia would remain non-communist could her control of Dutch New Guinea be strategically acceptable’. It was ‘essential that a communist Indonesia should not obtain control of territory of strategic importance for the close defence of Australia’. Such a possibility was ‘strategically unacceptable’.65

In one of its most significant recommendations, the members of the Defence Committee made clear their view that Australia should ‘afford military support to the Dutch or other friendly government’ should a hostile or potentially hostile government attempt to assume control of Dutch New Guinea ‘by force’. They also recommended that if the threat of an attack became apparent or a communist government gained power in Indonesia, then Australia should seek defence talks with the Netherlands and other friendly governments ‘with a view to ensuring the successful defence of Dutch New Guinea’.66 The question of whether Australia should assist the Dutch militarily would become a critical issue over the next few years and generate a degree of confusion amongst Australia’s allies.

Reiterating a point made by Menzies to Eden in 1952, the Committee set out in greater detail than previously the argument that Australia might have to choose between its commitments to its allies under SEATO and its obligation to defend Papua New Guinea, or at least divide its resources between the two. A threat to Papua New Guinea, for example through infiltration by Indonesia or the use of bases to stage ‘nuisance raids … would have the effect of tying down Australian forces and thus weakening Australia’s capacity to contribute to regional arrangements for collective defence in South East Asia’.

The 1956 report was the most comprehensive assessment to date of the place of Papua New Guinea in Australia’s strategic outlook and the importance of the relationship between the two halves of the island. Committee members had reasserted the judgement that the island was ‘vital’ to the defence of Australia. They had also sustained the argument that New Guinea had a role both as a shield preventing an attack and as a staging area to help Australia deploy to Southeast Asia. There were also further indications of an awareness of the serious strain on Australia’s limited defence capabilities should it be required to commit forces to regional security arrangements, while at the same time provide for the defence of Papua New Guinea. However, building on these conclusions, the report had emphasised the pivotal role of Indonesia in the strategic assessment of New Guinea and the deep concerns felt by defence planners about the consequences for Australia’s strategic environment should Indonesia fall under the control of communists. Casey made clear his views when he told his Canadian counterpart, Lester Pearson, that a change in the status of West New Guinea ‘would profoundly affect Australia’s position in our own adjoining dependent territories and affect our ability to commit defence forces outside Australia. Australia will take no risks with a land frontier with a neighbour who could go communist’.67

Conclusion

The first six years of Menzies’s prime ministership had seen the establishment of the principles guiding Australia’s regional security policy. Menzies had come to accept that Australia’s defence planning and commitments were no longer to be as a participant in an allied defence response in the Middle East but instead the focus was Southeast Asia and, in particular, Malaya. In 1953 the concept of ANZAM had been given greater clari-fication with the outer perimeter of Australia’s defence and strategic area of concern now centred on Malaya. As Peter Edwards has noted, ‘from 1953 Australia insisted that its military commitments would only be in what Menzies had much earlier called the “near north”’.68 Australia’s views as to the place of the island of New Guinea in its security environment had also been reasserted. Australia had continued its active diplomatic campaign with visits by Menzies and Casey to London, The Hague and Washington while Casey had set out in detail Australia’s views directly to Sukarno in April 1952 – the first formal presentation by an Australian minister to the Indonesian President. A mid-decade strategic review had confirmed that Australian New Guinea was ‘vital’ to Australia’s defence and that its security in turn was largely dependent on West New Guinea being occupied by a friendly power.

The attitudes of the members of the Menzies Cabinet had been largely formed from their experiences in the Second World War. In Menzies’s first post-war Cabinet ten of his seventeen ministerial colleagues had held ministerial posts during his wartime government from 1939 to 1941. In the election of 1949, thirty-four of the fifty new Liberal/Country Party members had served in the war.69 The memories of the invasion of Malaya, Netherlands East Indies and New Guinea influenced the government’s decision-making throughout the 1950s.

Menzies, Spender and then Casey had promoted Australia’s rejection of Indonesia’s claim to hold sovereignty over West New Guinea using arguments based almost solely on security but reinforced by references to race, ethnicity and international law. The Australian Government told its allies that its strategic environment and its responsibility for the defence of Papua New Guinea would be severely compromised should Indonesia assume control of West Guinea. Reflecting a psychology developed during the Second World War, Australian ministers believed that the continued presence of a stable, reliable and friendly Netherlands in West New Guinea was of critical importance to Australia. An unreliable and possibly pro-communist Indonesia was not an acceptable alternative. Indeed, it was a dangerous option that had to be frustrated.

Australia's Northern Shield?

   by Bruce Hunt