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Australia's Northern Shield?


Chapter 7



‘We will defend these territories [Papua and New Guinea] as if they were part of our mainland; there must be no mistaken ideas about that’.

Robert Menzies 1963

The early years of the 1960s were unexpectedly difficult times for Menzies and the Liberal–Country Party Government. The coalition had suffered a near fatal setback at the 1961 general elections due to its economic policies and had retained government with only a two seat majority – or one seat after it had provided a Speaker for the House of Representatives. Menzies was unsure of the longevity of his government. He told his British counterpart, Harold Macmillan, that his ‘nominal majority includes one or two people who would be quite happy to make mischief in my absence (overseas)’.1

Menzies survived this uncertain period to emerge victorious in the 1963 election for the House of Representatives and to remain in government until his retirement in January 1966. His Cabinet throughout this period was a mixture of experience and ambition. In 1961 the British High Commissioner in Canberra, Lord Peter Carrington, provided London with a portrait of its leading members.2 Menzies was once again described as the dominant personality both in parliament and in the country and ‘head and shoulders above the average Australian’. He was also portrayed as ‘an arrogant man’ who was not good at delegating. After Menzies, Deputy Prime Minister McEwen was described as the only Cabinet member ‘of any real stature’ with a ‘keen and intelligent interest over a wide field of economic affairs’. (Carrington made no reference to McEwen’s growing influence over Australia’s foreign policy and its relations with Asia.) Harold Holt (Treasurer) was seen as a disappointment. He was well informed but had ‘not so far showed the necessary qualities of leadership and statesmanship or lived up to the promise he earlier showed’. The newly appointed Defence Minister, Athol Townley, ‘has yet to show any outstanding qualities as a statesman or politician’. William McMahon (Minister for Labour and National Service) had ‘little ability or force of character’, although there was more to him ‘than he looks or sounds’. He was, however, seen as ‘intensely ambitious’. Senator John Gorton (Minister for the Navy) was also called ‘intensely ambitious’, although ‘he tends to give the appearance of a lightweight’. Paul Hasluck (Minister for Territories) was clearly difficult to assess. His hard work in a sensitive portfolio was admired but he was acknowledged as a ‘difficult minister’ who stood ‘aloof because of his intellectual qualities’. Finally, Sir Garfield Barwick (Minister for External Affairs and Attorney-General) was seen in 1961 as lacking in parliamentary experience and political ‘nous’ but with his ‘obvious ability’ was ‘progressively establishing himself as a possible successor to Mr Menzies’. These men were to lead Australia through the next crisis with Indonesia.3

There was an air of expectation that the Labor Party could win the next election due in 1963 given the dramatic fall in the government’s popularity. Arthur Calwell had succeeded Dr Evatt as leader of the Labor Party on 7 March 1960 with E. Gough Whitlam as his deputy. Calwell was to lead the party in its opposition to the re-introduction of conscription and Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Such was the possibility that Calwell could become Prime Minister that he was invited to call on President Kennedy on 23 July 1963 during his first overseas visit since the late 1940s. Despite his precarious position in the Parliament Menzies slowly reasserted control as the Opposition fumbled key security and foreign policy issues. Australian politics was to remain unchanged for the next decade.

In contrast, Indonesia under Sukarno continued its steady economic decline. James Ingram, Deputy Head of Mission in Jakarta whose reporting style was a perfect counterbalance to the sharply-focused but nevertheless quicksilver, uninhibited, almost stream-of-consciousness style of K. C. O. (Mick) Shann, who had taken up duty as Ambassador to Indonesia in November 1962, sent Canberra a portrait of Sukarno and Indonesia in 1964.4 Ingram described Sukarno as a ‘potentate who rules through a court, playing favourites, compartmentalizing his aides while exploiting their weaknesses whether it be pride, cupidity, avarice or sexual appetite’. His power was ‘paramount’ and ‘becoming increasingly absolute’ and he had achieved this status as a ‘function of his charisma, his shrewdness and the appeal of his ideology’. His ‘system of rule puts a premium on amorality and lack of character as the dominant quality of his subordinates’. Sukarno’s ‘main assistants were opportunists and sycophants’, while Foreign Minister Subandrio was ‘the epitome of the clever, ingratiating lackey who, however, lacks any real guts’. As to where Sukarno was leading Indonesia, Ingram described him as ‘obsessed with Indonesia’s destiny as the dominant power in the region’. As a consequence ‘if there were a settlement on Malaysia, Sukarno would have to turn to another external adventure’. Indonesia’s future was seen as possibly a ‘national communist’ state which could be expansionist in outlook.5

As noted in the earlier chapters on the West New Guinea dispute, a strong body of writing also exists on Confrontation and Australia’s response and it is not the intention of this book to repeat those assessments of the crisis. Instead the aim is to assess the place of Papua New Guinea in determining how Australia responded to developments and the importance Australian decision-makers attached to Papua New Guinea when making decisions about Confrontation.6

Malaysia formed – trouble erupts

Indonesia’s policy of Confrontation towards the newly formed Malaysia was a more complex international and regional issue than the West New Guinea dispute. It was conducted, as John Subritzky has argued, in a period of heightened Cold War tension involving challenges from the Soviet Union and Communist China to Britain and the United States in both Europe and Southeast Asia.7 The Vietnam War was beginning to escalate, while Laos remained under serious threat from insurgents. The United States was under pressure to finalise a policy position on the extent to which it wished to be engaged militarily in Southeast Asia. In addition, Confrontation involved a number of significant Southeast Asian regional states, principally Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines.

In November 1961 in principle agreement had been reached on the establishment of the Federation of Malaysia incorporating Malaya and Singapore. Agreements reached in subsequent months saw the British North Borneo Territories of Sabah and Sarawak included in the Federation. The November agreement, negotiated by Britain, Malaya and Singapore, was that the Federation would come into being on 31 August 1963 and that Britain would retain unrestricted access to the defence facilities in Singapore.8 Initially, as Subritzky has noted, Subandrio, privately and later publicly at the United Nations, expressed his country’s support for the concept of the Federation.9 However, the steady and favourable early path towards the formation of Malaysia was blocked as Indonesia came to believe that the proposed Federation would in fact lead to Britain remaining in Southeast Asia to meet its obligation to defend Malaysia. Indonesia perceived the proposed Federation as a ‘neo-colonial construct of an imperialist power’.10 Sukarno’s hostility crystallised following the suppression by British troops in December 1962 of a revolt in Brunei led by Sheik Azahari. On 20 January 1963 Subandrio announced that Indonesia would pursue a policy of ‘confrontation’ against the proposed Federation. In April 1963 ‘volunteers’, widely assumed to be supported by Indonesia, crossed the Sarawak border and clashed with British troops.

In late May and early June 1963 attempts were made to promote a dialogue between Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia and a solution to the crisis appeared possible. Hopes were dashed, however, when Indonesia reacted negatively to the announcement on 9 July 1963 that Britain, Singapore and Malaya had reached agreement (the London Agreement) on the establishment of Malaysia, with provision for the maintenance of British bases. Further attempts to reach a negotiated settlement were made at the Manila Summit of July–August 1963 between the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines but these too failed. By late July 1963 Sukarno had accelerated his campaign against the proposal, declaring on 15 September 1963, the day before ‘Malaysia Day’, that Malaysia was illegal and would not be recognised by Indonesia. This was followed by the attacks on the British Embassy and the Malaysian chancery in Jakarta. Indonesia launched a publicly declared policy of ‘Crush Malaysia’.

On 25 September 1963 Menzies told the Parliament that Australia would contribute to Britain’s efforts to defend Malaysia’s territorial integrity and independence. On 13 October 1963 Sukarno formally announced: ‘Now I declare officially that Indonesia opposes Malaysia’. Further violent clashes, subversive activities in Singapore and Indonesian guerrilla attacks on British Borneo contributed to a rapid deterioration in relations. A summit meeting between Sukarno and Malaysia’s Tunku Abdul Rahman in Tokyo in June 1964 failed to achieve a resolution of the dispute, leading to heightened fears of an escalation of fighting. Indonesian military attacks broadened to major military operations, including seaborne landings by Indonesian troops on the Malayan peninsula.

In response, Britain and its allies, including Australia, deployed significant military assets to defend Malaysia. At the height of Confrontation, Britain had 68,000 servicemen in Southeast Asia and a fleet of 80 naval vessels, including two aircraft carriers.11 Australia had accepted an undertaking in 1959 to assist in the defence of Malaysia through its participation in the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve, its earlier commitment through ANZAM to defence coordination and planning with Britain, New Zealand and Malaysia and, more generally, through SEATO. Nevertheless, the key links, as Moreen Dee has noted, were through ANZAM and SEATO.12 As discussed earlier, Australia also had a long-established belief that its security began with the preservation of a defensive line stretching from Malaya to the South Pacific. However, the government adopted a cautious and highly graduated approach to the timing and scope of the actual deployment of its troops to Malaysia. In October 1964 the first clash occurred between Australian and Indonesian troops in West Malaysia. In December 1964 Malaysia appealed to the United Nations for assistance should Indonesia continue with its acts of aggression. Indonesia responded to this appeal, and to Malaysia taking a seat on the Security Council, by withdrawing from the United Nations and its agencies in January 1965.

Throughout 1965 Britain was focused on the need to build its military resources to meet the threat from Indonesia. While attention was directed to this issue, internal pressures within the Federation caused Singapore to secede on 9 August 1965, although Malaysia and Singapore remained resolved to defend themselves against Indonesian confrontation. It was not until the attempted coup on 30 September 1965 which saw a dramatic realignment of political forces in Jakarta that tensions between Indonesia and its neighbours lessened. Eventually Confrontation was officially abandoned on 11 August 1966, although few if any clashes had occurred between the major parties in the six months beforehand.

The same dilemma which had confronted the Menzies Cabinet throughout the West New Guinea dispute had returned during the period of Confrontation: how to maintain the elements of a sound bilateral relationship with Indonesia while protecting its national and regional defence and security interests. It was also a test of Australia’s capacity to judge the extent to which its interests in maintaining an open relationship with Indonesia could be weighed against its need to protect its interests in Papua New Guinea.

Confrontation – implications for Australia, fears for Papua New Guinea

The period from late 1962 witnessed a rush of assessments and opinions on the likely course of events in Indonesia with an emphasis on its possible ambitions to assert a role in the region. As early as February 1961, Australia’s Ambassador in Washington, Howard Beale, had reported the views of Allen Dulles, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, that he (Dulles) had no doubt that ‘if they [Indonesia] got West New Guinea they would then lay claim to other territories in the area … mentioning Sarawak, Borneo and the rest of New Guinea as possible future objectives’.13 Later, in June 1962 in talks with H. D. (David) Anderson, visiting from the Department of External Affairs, the United States Embassy in Jakarta canvassed a number of scenarios as to Indonesia’s possible intentions and suggested that the most likely target was East New Guinea or Borneo.14

The Department of External Affairs continued to demonstrate the pessimism about Indonesia’s attitude to Papua New Guinea which had characterised its assessments during the West New Guinea dispute. In briefing notes prepared in September 1962 for a meeting between Australia’s Minister for External Affairs, Sir Garfield Barwick, and US Secretary of State Dean Rusk, the Department encouraged Barwick to remind Rusk that:

Australia will face a new and tricky situation, with major implications not only for the future of East New Guinea but possibly for the wider area of the Pacific islands and Australia itself. By the take over of West New Guinea Indonesia is projected a great deal further eastwards; what eventuates in Indonesia – a subject on which it is hard to be optimistic – will henceforth be reflected in West New Guinea and will in turn have an effect on two million people in our territory.15

For his part Menzies remained sensitive to the possibility of difficulty between Australia and Indonesia if the latter chose to destabilise its neighbours, including Papua New Guinea. However, in the brief pause between the end of the West New Guinea dispute and the launch of Confrontation, he continued to reflect the views expressed in the Cabinet room during the West New Guinea dispute that a relationship had to be maintained with Indonesia, but not if Indonesia posed a threat of any sort to Papua New Guinea. In a record of his meeting on 31 October 1962, Shann, Ambassador-designate to Indonesia, noted that the Prime Minister:

Did not think that the Indonesians intended to absorb East New Guinea, and was confident that it was going to be possible to live sensibly with what in due course would be a rich and powerful neighbour. Neither did he imagine that the Indonesians would cause trouble in Borneo, although their distaste for the concept of Malaysia was clear … While it was clear that in due course Indonesia must have the whole of Timor our reaction at any rate for the time being to any sign of her trying to extend her territory beyond the confines of the old Netherlands East Indies should be sharp and immediate. … In the development of New Guinea … we must adopt an attitude friendly to Indonesia and that his own personal view was that there should be no diminution in cooperation and contact between the two sides of New Guinea following the replacement of the Dutch by the Indonesians. He realised that in a few years’ time a very tricky situation might develop between the two sides as they come towards the time for making decisions about their future. Each side might tend to attract the other at some stage or other.16

The pause in Menzies’s suspicion of Sukarno and Indonesia did not last long, while his assessment of Indonesia’s attitude towards Borneo soon proved wide of the mark.

Barwick shared his Prime Minister’s sensitivities over possible difficulties with Indonesia. Shann recorded Barwick as telling Tange and himself that ‘our [Australian] reaction to any monkey business in Portuguese Timor, Borneo or particularly East New Guinea should be sharp and quick’.17 On 9 January 1963 he wrote to Shann advising him that Australia’s tolerance of Indonesia’s behaviour towards its neighbours had been ‘strained’ by recent events and that ‘a time is approaching when it will be necessary to warn the Indonesians that whatever they may get away with in Borneo or Timor, Australia is prepared to defend its own frontier and that of Papua/New Guinea against subversion or direct attack’.18 Barwick argued that while Australia had come to accept Indonesia’s claims regarding West New Guinea, ‘we do not accept Indonesia’s right to interfere in any other territory whether in Borneo or East New Guinea’.19 He concluded by reminding Shann that ‘any activity (whether crudely labelled as aid by ‘volunteers’ or not) which is hostile to Australia’s position in New Guinea would have an immediate and profound effect not only on Australian public opinion but on the Government’s whole attitude to Indonesia’.20

Shann replied to Barwick’s letter of 9 January and, in doing so, questioned whether the judgement could be made conclusively that Indonesia was expansionist in outlook.21 In his first despatch to Canberra, Shann told his minister that he believed that ‘the Indonesians [were] for the moment quite sincere in their claim that they have no ambitions whatsoever towards East New Guinea, and this claim is strengthened by their distress as to what they have found in West New Guinea’.22 [Shann was referring to the economic and social conditions in West New Guinea.] He was wary of Indonesia’s intentions but, at this stage in the evolution of Confrontation, he took a more pragmatic approach and was not convinced that Indonesia would threaten Papua New Guinea militarily, nor subvert Australian interests there.

Other members of the Cabinet drew on the suspicions of Indonesia they had first developed during the West New Guinea dispute. Hasluck, who had held out longest in the Cabinet room in defence of the Dutch claim to West New Guinea and had argued for a stronger line against Indonesia, told a largely Australian audience in Port Moresby in September 1962 that:

in matters of defence the Australian Government regards Papua and New Guinea in the same way as it regards the Australian mainland. It will defend both. … Furthermore, the territory of Papua and New Guinea is regarded as the same as any other Australian territory for the purposes of the ANZUS Treaty which ensures that in any act of aggression against Australian territory we will have powerful Allies.23

Hasluck’s assurance that Australia would defend Papua New Guinea was one of the first of a number of such public statements over the next three years by Australian political leaders.

Canberra’s patience towards Indonesia was strained when on 20 January 1963 Subandrio publicly announced a policy of Confrontation (Konfrontasi) against Malaysia. As he had flagged in his letter to Shann on 9 January, Barwick called in the Indonesian Ambassador on 21 January and warned him of the ‘risk to relations between Australia and Indonesia of suspicion and antagonism aroused by rash steps by Indonesia’. In this context ‘Australians would stand no nonsense where East New Guinea was concerned. Australians expected solemn obligations to be performed. It was basic to our relations that Indonesia understood these things fully’.24 Barwick’s meeting with the Indonesian Ambassador was immediately followed up by a letter from External Affairs to Shann. The letter advised Shann that ‘Australia could not accept Indonesian involvement in Papua-New Guinea’. Moreover, ‘the Secretary [Tange] feels that without in any way threatening or striking attitudes, we bring home to responsible Indonesian officials our determination to defend our territory and to honour our international agreements’.25 Shann was encouraged to speak to the Indonesian Minister for Defence informally and ‘get the message across both about Australian New Guinea and our close relations with Malaya … and the extreme seriousness with which Australia would regard expansionist activity by Indonesia … [which] would meet resolute opposition’.26

Australian ministers were becoming noticeably more convinced that Indonesia’s actions against Malaysia could lead to possible Indonesian hostility towards Papua New Guinea. They were also increasingly sceptical of Sukarno’s broader intentions. At this time Menzies let it be known that officials should go cold on following up with Jakarta his invitation to Sukarno to visit Australia. John Bunting (Secretary, Prime Minister’s Department) told Tange that ‘no energy (was to be) devoted towards firm arrangements for a visit or towards hastening one … he (Menzies) does not feel that the Australian public would receive a visit happily’.27

Britain raises the stakes

On 15 January 1963 Britain proposed that talks be held with Australia and the United States in the wake of Indonesia’s involvement in the rebellion in Brunei and its assessment that Sukarno’s ambitions ‘do not seem to be satisfied by the acquisition of West Irian. … He is looking for new adventures’.28 As to New Guinea, the British assessment passed to Canberra argued that:

with half of New Guinea in their hands, the Indonesians are eventually going to want the other half. … A time will surely come when the Indonesians will push the Papuans under their own control to demand union with their brothers ‘under Colonialist oppression’. The Indonesians would hope to extend their control over the whole of Melanesia and thus become a major Pacific Power.29

The assessment noted that Indonesia’s ambitions ‘put itself in the grip of either the Russians or the Chinese in the course of extending its conquests. … From many points of view it is already identified with the Communist Bloc’.30 The UK paper asked whether Australia shared this analysis of Indonesia’s ambitions and sought ‘their own views about the dangers ahead of us’.

Woodard has described Britain as having ‘weakened their case by overstating it’ and certainly Canberra’s initial response was to question the urgency of the British initiative and to doubt the conclusions drawn by London.31 Contrary to the strong views External Affairs had been expressing to Barwick and to Shann about Indonesian threats to Australian interests in Papua New Guinea, Tange told the UK Deputy High Commissioner that ‘there was a good deal more “heat” in the analysis than we ourselves felt at present’. He agreed that some of the activity by Indonesia described in the assessment could occur but ‘we did not expect any activity against Australian territory for some time ahead’. He admitted that Australia expected some ‘eventual meddling’ by Indonesia in Australian New Guinea and was ‘taking steps in anticipation of this’.32

Barwick decided to seek Cabinet endorsement for the position which Tange, who was representing Australia along with the Ambassador to Washington, Sir Howard Beale, would take at the talks scheduled for February in Washington. In a note circulated to Cabinet he told his colleagues that Australia should accept Malaysia as the best available solution to the internal problems facing the territories concerned and that Australia should encourage Indonesia and the Philippines to support its formation. Australia should also make clear its disapproval of Indonesia’s campaign of subversion and infiltration into the territories. Barwick saw a link between Indonesia’s actions against Malaysia and possible ambitions towards Papua New Guinea and argued that Australia was to make clear its:

determination to defend Papua-New Guinea and must be prepared to resist Indonesian attempts to interfere in the transition of the territory to self-government. Australia would expect the understanding, approval and assistance of its friends in this.33

At the same time, reflecting the point reached by Cabinet during the West New Guinea dispute, Barwick argued that ‘we must be prepared to understand and accommodate some Indonesian interest in what is in fact a neighbouring territory … and we [Australia] must seek to improve relations with Indonesia in all fields’.34

In briefing his minister for the Cabinet meeting Tange warned him that Australia ‘cannot ignore the possibility that an Indonesian Government of any political complexion will interest itself in internal political developments in Papua New Guinea’.35 Moreover:

an Indonesian Government not concerned with maintaining good relations with Australia is likely to turn its attention at some time in the future towards Papua New Guinea whether Australian administered or not. I conclude that it is essential to leave Indonesia in no doubt as to our determination to bring Papua New Guinea to the stage of self-determination without interference from outside. This can be done without giving the impression of fear or hostility. We should make it clear, however, that Indonesia’s respect of the 141st meridian will be in our view a major test of our future relations.36

Tange’s comments to Barwick reflected the now well-established attitude held by Australia that the defence of Australia’s interests and its presence in Papua and New Guinea was qualitatively different from its approach to other regional issues. While the government spoke of seeking a positive relationship with Indonesia in particular and Southeast Asia in general, ministers and officials such as Tange placed Papua and New Guinea in a different category. They were not prepared to compromise Australia’s position.

Although the issue had moved on from West New Guinea to the creation of Malaysia, the interventions by ministers in Cabinet were similar in tone and sentiment to those which had characterised discussions in the 1950s. At the Cabinet meeting on 5 February 1963 held to discuss Barwick’s note, ministers accepted the need to strike a balance between building a friendly relationship with Indonesia while opposing it if it embarked on expansionist activities that threatened Australia’s interests. Barwick told his colleagues that ‘the worst of all worlds is to create standing ill-will with Indonesia but we must nevertheless support the Tunku’ (i.e. Malaysia).37 He said Australia must make clear ‘our opposition to Indonesian expansion and meddling in the affairs of others’.38 He was adamant that ‘we should be quite emphatic that we won’t stand for Indonesian expansion’. Barwick’s comments were directed more at Indonesia’s perceived ambitions towards Borneo and Timor but Menzies believed they spread further. Using language similar to that he had first used to describe President Nasser during the Suez Crisis (see Chapter 5), he told his colleagues that:

Sukarno’s expansion aims are not concluded. [The] British and US [are] waking up to this a little late in the day. His ideas appear to run to Borneo, to Timor and conceivably to East New Guinea. As to East New Guinea, we propose to oppose by arms – and we would hope to have friends to assist.39

Menzies argued that Australia had to be prepared to assist Britain in the defence of Malaysia as ‘[Australia] can’t take an attitude that we’re interested only when it comes to East New Guinea’.40 Menzies described Greater Malaysia as a ‘cordon sanitaire against Soekarno’s northern ambitions’, while Barwick added that it was ‘our best guarantee against an eventual monolithic structure from Indonesia northwards’.41 Only McEwen sounded a note of caution when he bluntly warned ‘if we get to the point of conflict we go along with our friends. … but don’t let us brook a situation in which we become number one enemy of Indonesia’. He linked Australia’s attitude to military action against Indonesia and the government’s wider plans for national development and added ‘we can’t mobilize and develop’.42

Ministers agreed that Australia should support the concept of Malaysia and should participate in the talks in Washington. The preferred policy position was to avoid ‘policy initiatives which might lead to the point where Australia came to be seen by Indonesia or other countries as a standing adversary. The objective … must be to achieve the greatest available degree of mutual understanding’.43 Nevertheless, they were wary, in light of the experience of how the West New Guinea issue had been settled, of whether the major powers (Britain and the United States) would show ‘firmness against Indonesian expansion’.44

The quadripartite talks in Washington, held on 11 and 12 February 1963, met Australia’s objectives. Britain made clear that it accepted primary responsibility for the defence of Malaysia, a sentiment readily accepted by both the United States and Australia with Averell Harriman (Assistant Secretary of State for Far East Affairs) making plain the US view that ‘Britain was in the lead, with both Australia and New Zealand a stride behind and the United States a few strides further behind them’.45 Officials were in general agreement that Indonesia’s future actions were uncertain, with Britain expressing the most pessimistic view of Sukarno’s expansionist ambitions. Beale told the meeting that Australia was aware of the need for caution in its policy towards Indonesia and of the danger that Sukarno might be pushed into Russian hands but it could not accept an Indonesia that could ‘lay hands on other people’s territory’. In this respect, ‘as far as Australian Papua/New Guinea was concerned, Australia had made clear its determination to defend the territory, a matter in which United States defence commitments under ANZUS were involved’. Harriman ‘confirmed the application of ANZUS to Papua/New Guinea’, adding that the United States was ‘willing to make the understanding even plainer’. Beale resisted the offer and told the meeting that a further assurance was not required.46

Defence shortcomings exposed

At the same time as ministers were debating their approach to the defence of Malaysia they were also acutely aware of the pressure being brought to bear to increase Australia’s defence capabilities and its military engagement in Southeast Asia. The United States had first made this point at the 1962 ANZUS talks in Canberra early in the term of the Kennedy Administration. In February 1963 Beale told Canberra that he believed the Administration was expecting its allies to assume a greater share of the defence burden and that this attitude was stiffening.47 Beale argued that ‘our ability to influence their policies and actions in our favour may, in the future, depend upon how much we are willing to put into an area which, in their mind, is even more vital to us than it is to them’.48

While in Washington for the quadripartite talks Tange experienced at first hand such pressure from the Administration when he called on Secretary of State Rusk. Rusk was ‘serious and emphatic’ and ‘was not seeking information but conveying an opinion’ when he asked whether ‘Australian defences are in adequate shape to assume the burdens arising in this area’ and ‘whether we had “reserves of trained men” to call upon to meet any situation’.49 Rusk told Tange that the United States supported the formation of Malaysia but it was a British Commonwealth responsibility to look after it. He added ‘if anyone had any idea that the United States would repeat anywhere else the situation in Vietnam where they had 12,000 men suffering casualties, they were mistaken. The United States would not be the gendarmes of the world’.50 Tange explained the government’s preference for ‘smaller forces fully trained and available to be used in South East Asia within two or three weeks of the call’.51 In private comments to his colleagues he revealed his own frustrations and concerns at the ‘manifest insufficiency of the Australian defence forces to meet the variety of diplomatic challenges with which Australia might be confronted’.52 Rusk later reassured Beale that the US was ‘unequivocally bound under ANZUS to come to Australia’s defence in the event of an attack on Australia or her territories in the Pacific area’ and that if Australian forces were involved in fighting Indonesia to protect Malaysia and ‘Australian forces were in trouble’, the US ‘would regard itself as just as bound to assist Australia as she would in a case involving ANZUS’.53

As ministers grappled with the implications of Indonesia’s hostility to the formation of Malaysia they also had before them at least half a dozen complex submissions dealing with Australia’s regional security environment and defence preparedness.54 Although Menzies brought his customary outward calm and ordered approach to decision-making, there can be detected in the recording of the Cabinet’s discussions and subsequent decisions a deepening concern, if not alarm, as ministers raced to make up for a decade of inactivity in relation to Australia’s defences. Holt described the proposed increases before Cabinet as the biggest build-up in the defence budget since the government had taken office in 1949.55

The first submission on the broader question of ‘Australia’s Strategic Position’ had been prepared by the Defence Committee in February 1963 and had identified two threats to Australia: Indonesia and the advance of communism in Indochina and Southeast Asia. Communist expansionist aims promoted by China and backed by military power were seen as the ‘underlying threat to Australia’s national security’, while Indonesia was considered a more immediate danger.56 The report assessed the Indonesian Government’s attitude to Australia as ‘one of reserve’ while it was ‘too early to estimate Indonesia’s long term attitude and intentions in respect of eastern New Guinea’. However, reflecting the thoughts of Tange, it warned that ‘an Indonesian Government not concerned with maintaining good relations with Australia is likely to turn its attention at some time in the future towards eastern New Guinea – whether Australian administered or not’. Indonesia would be deterred from open warfare while the ANZUS Treaty applied to the Territory but it could pursue techniques short of war to force a ‘political settlement in her favour’.57 The report highlighted the US Administration’s call for allies to contribute more to the defence of the region and noted that ‘in some cases, such as might develop over eastern New Guinea, the degree of obligation which America feels to Australia under ANZUS could be influenced by the contributions which Australia makes to the common defence’.58

Ministers accepted the Defence Committee’s arguments, including its description of Indonesia’s growth as a military power, opposition to Malaysia, hostility to colonial regimes and use of power in respect of diplomatic aims.59 It agreed that ‘there should be an increase in the present scale of defence programming … not only to ensure the security of the Australian mainland and East New Guinea but also to enable us to make an effective and sustained contribution in South East Asia and to present a deterrent to possible activities by Indonesia inimical to our strategic interests’.60

The second submission on the narrower subject of ‘The Strategic Importance to Australia of New Guinea’ was the first prepared on the island since the settlement of the West New Guinea dispute. It began by noting that ‘for the first time Australia will through the territories of Papua and New Guinea share a common land frontier with a country whose long term friendship cannot be assumed’. It anticipated a likely ‘conflict of interest’ between Australia and Indonesia given their different ‘outlook and aspirations’ and warned of the possibility of ‘external pressures, including communist pressures … being directed towards … Eastern New Guinea aimed at creating disaffection’.61 It also acknowledged that problems could arise due to the ‘incomplete and inadequate definition of the border’. This, in turn, could lead to infiltration ‘directed at creating disaffection with our administration [in the Territory]’.62 It concluded that ‘the strategic importance of West New Guinea under Indonesian control [Indonesia was scheduled to assume administrative control on 3 August 1963] will lie mainly in its potentiality as a base for the conduct of activities, particularly of a subversive nature, prejudicial to our interests in Eastern New Guinea’.63

Turning to Eastern New Guinea itself, the submission argued that it would ‘continue to remain of great strategic importance to Australia for the foreseeable future’ and, as long as it remained Australian territory, Australia had a responsibility to defend it. The report placed considerable emphasis on Papua and New Guinea’s role in protecting Australia’s lines of communications to its forward defence positions in Southeast Asia. The denial of Eastern New Guinea to an enemy would ‘play a most important part in maintaining the security of our sea and air communications with North America … and United States bases in the Pacific’. It was envisaged that ‘Manus and possibly Rabaul and Port Moresby would be used for convoy support forces and air staging’.

The Defence Committee’s review received strong support within the bureaucracy. In particular, the Department of the Prime Minister showed itself to be increasingly alarmed at the state of Australia’s defence preparedness in the face of what it saw as a deteriorating security environment in Southeast Asia. One of its senior advisers on foreign and defence issues, Alan Griffith, who was close to McEwen and later Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, believed that Australia had to adopt a tougher approach to Indonesia and warned against what he saw as a soft approach from External Affairs. Griffith, described by Woodard as one of many officials close to Menzies who had ‘strongly held anti-communist views’, saw a clear link between the situation in Southeast Asia and Australia’s security interests in Papua New Guinea.64 He identified Papua New Guinea’s role as providing ‘staging facilities for a line of communication into Southeast Asia, whenever it becomes necessary to circumvent Indonesia’.65 In addition, Griffith held strongly to the view that unprecedented pressure was now placed on Papua New Guinea through Indonesia’s assumption of control over West New Guinea. He warned that ‘subversion [was] a probability and we must be prepared for incidents particularly on questions of border demarcation and refugees’.66 Over the next few months Griffith continued to put before Menzies and other senior ministers his deep concerns about an Indonesian threat to Papua New Guinea. In doing so he ‘drew on the decades of fear of Indonesia constituting a threat through control over West New Guinea’.67

Strengthening Papua New Guinea’s defences

In conjunction with its examination of the strategic importance of New Guinea, Cabinet also examined a further submission proposing ‘immediate’ measures to improve both the defence of Papua and New Guinea and Australia’s ability to defend its broader strategic interests using Papua and New Guinea as a forward base.68 The submission recommended the creation of an intelligence organisation to provide ‘warning of infiltration or subversion’ in Eastern New Guinea; the ‘orderly’ expansion of the Pacific Island Regiment over a three year period through the recruitment of more indigenous soldiers and the placement of indigenous officers in command and control positions; and increased coastal security with the creation of a marine branch. The submission examined the possibility of developing military bases for the conduct of defensive operations but judged they were not necessary as an overt military attack in the near future was considered unlikely.

The submission and the subsequent discussion in Cabinet provide a further insight into the increasing anxiety that ministers were experiencing. Such was the sense of frustration at Australia’s inability to respond effectively to this changing environment that the government’s most senior adviser, John Bunting, raised directly with Menzies his criticisms of the proposals. He described them as ‘a small idea or two about more intelligence and a bit more on the Papuan Infantry Regiment. … It seems to me that Cabinet should note the Defence papers, but then get down to the tin tacks of discussing the policy of doing something extra or not, and if yes, in what fields.’69 Bunting’s criticisms played into Menzies’s broader concerns about the state of Australia’s defence preparations in Papua New Guinea.

A reading of the Cabinet Notebook for the meeting suggests that Barwick was not present on 2 May when ministers discussed the submission and Townley may have been absent due to ill health. Instead Hasluck, who had served as Minister for Territories since 1951, led the discussion. He emphasised the need to ‘reassure’ the Australian public in the wake of Indonesia’s success over West New Guinea and now its attitude of confrontation with Malaysia. He argued that a ‘large proportion of the Australian people [was] very concerned with the security of East New Guinea and doubts [were] popularly held about Soekarno’s intentions’. As a result, there was a ‘need to reassure [the] Australian public by indicating that East New Guinea will be held and we are not being taken for suckers’.70 Moreover, ‘we must give visible evidence that we are serious about [the] defence of New Guinea’ to reassure both the ‘native and non-native’ communities. He made clear to his colleagues his ‘central thesis [was] that we must, as [an] essential element in our defence, build confidence in New Guinea and in Australia’. In keeping with this argument, Hasluck called for a significant increase in the size of the Pacific Islands Regiment (PIR), and at a much faster rate than that proposed, and a military base, wharf and ‘first class’ all-weather air field should be built at Wewak in East Sepik province, close to the border with Indonesia, to serve as a military ‘centre’. The formation of a locally-based intelligence organisation was also supported ‘to provide warning of infiltration or subversion’.71 Hasluck’s presentation was consistent with many of the points he had made during the latter stages of the West New Guinea dispute. He remained both suspicious of Indonesia and an advocate of a strong, sustained military response to protect Australia’s interests in the region.

Hasluck found widespread support in Cabinet. Menzies readily agreed, adding that the government had a responsibility not only to reassure both the Australian and territory populations but to ‘make clear an intention to defend’. He emphasised the need to ‘have substantial forces in being and visible – trained and equipped and disciplined – otherwise border incidents [will go unchecked]’. He commented that, if practical, we ‘proceed on the sound principle of reassurance of our New Guinea people’. Menzies noted the need to ‘expand [the] PIR effectively – this is the operative word’.72 Menzies held a subsequent meeting with the Secretary of Defence (Sir Edwin Hicks) and the Chair of the Chief of Staff Committee (Sir Frederick Scherger) and reached agreement that the PIR would be increased more rapidly than first proposed, with an emphasis on an ‘effective’ expansion.73

In subsequent months the size of the PIR was increased from 72 Australian Army personnel and 660 local troops to 185 Australian Army personnel and 1188 local troops. Menzies directed that the increase be undertaken ‘at full effective speed’ and, if possible, completed sooner than planned. The Cabinet decision noted that the build-up in local defence capability was considered especially important ‘in the context of a need to provide the people of Papua and New Guinea (and also the people of Australia) with visible evidence of capacity and intention to act in the defence of the Territory’.74 Cabinet later endorsed the proposal for the development of an airfield at Boram (Wewak, East Sepik Province).75 The Defence Department had argued that the airstrip would allow for the patrolling of the Indonesia–Papua New Guinea border and the transit of aircraft from Australia to Southeast Asia.76 Cabinet also approved the rehabilitation and extension of the Nadzab airstrip (near Lae) for use as a transit airfield for flights to Southeast Asia.77

These decisions drew Papua New Guinea more closely into a broader strategic concept which linked it to developments in Southeast Asia and to questions of Australia’s overall defence preparedness. They marked the beginning of a shift in Australia’s thinking as to the role of Papua New Guinea in Australia’s defence environment. Historically, Papua New Guinea had been seen as a shield lying across Australia’s north, well-placed to defend Australia against invasion. That view was now being modified. Papua New Guinea was still seen as a barrier against invasion but it was also now a platform or staging post to assist Australia in its deployments into Southeast Asia and Indo China.

Menzies captured the mood of the Cabinet in a statement to Parliament on 22 May 1963. He referred to the ‘uncertainties’ in Laos, the ‘acute problems’ in South Vietnam, the ‘conflicts’ which existed over the creation of the Federation of Malaysia and the ‘events in and concerning’ West New Guinea. He made no specific reference to Indonesia, although early in his statement, reflecting the discussion in Cabinet over the need to reassure the Australian and local communities in Eastern New Guinea, he made clear that ‘we will defend these territories as if they were part of our mainland; there must be no mistaken ideas about that’.78 Menzies was to repeat this pledge on at least four further occasions over the next six months as confrontation escalated and as he sought to portray himself as a staunch defender of Australia’s security interests.79 He made the same commitment when he visited Port Moresby in September 1963.80

Menzies went on to advise the Parliament of the major increases in the capability and preparedness of each element of the defence force. The total budget (excluding the cost of a new strike-reconnaissance aircraft) would be increased from an earlier figure of £1313.4 million to £1519.2 million or rising from £212.2 million in 1962–63 to £269.5 million in 1967–68. This was the beginning of a series of revised and increased defence budgets over the next few years as confrontation with Indonesia continued and engagement in the Vietnam War deepened. Tange told his departmental colleagues that the Prime Minister’s statement was a clear message to Indonesia that ‘Australia is preparing itself more to defend its vital security interests, including the territory neighbouring Indonesia against attack or threat from any quarter’. Cabinet’s urgency in approving increased defence spending was ‘not only to ensure the security of the Australian mainland and East New Guinea, but also to enable us to make an effective and sustained contribution in Southeast Asia and to present a deterrent to possible activities by Indonesia inimical to our strategic interests’.81 Over the next twelve to eighteen months the suspicion and distrust which had formed in Menzies’s mind and that of his colleagues during the West New Guinea dispute towards Indonesia, and President Sukarno in particular, deepened.

Crisis over Malaysia

Australia continued to be concerned at the possibility of Indonesia becoming more openly aggressive as the date for the inauguration of the Federation of Malaysia drew closer.82 Barwick told the UK Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Peter Thomas, in April 1963 that he ‘remained highly sceptical about Indonesia and thought that the ultimate sanction was that the United States should let it be plainly understood that they would not stand for any nonsense’.83 However, America’s attitude was less accommodating than Australia wished. At a meeting with the Menzies Cabinet on 7 June 1963, Averell Harriman, now Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, told ministers that ‘Soekarno [was] a problem but has qualities we can’t ignore … a strong nationalist … our feeling is that it is best to work in with Soekarno and Indonesia rather than hit them over the head’. He repeated earlier assurances from senior US State Department officials when he said ‘[I] have noted [the Prime Minister] has said that Australia will fight for its part of New Guinea. I have said and now repeat that ANZUS applies to New Guinea’.84 Harriman continued to argue that responsibility for Malaysia was first a UK problem and then a Commonwealth responsibility, i.e. an Australian and New Zealand responsibility. He drew on the sentiments expressed by Rusk to Tange in February 1963 when Rusk had said that the United States could ‘not take on a new country at this time for political reasons’. Harriman then created a degree of confusion over whether the ANZUS Treaty would apply if Australian troops in Malaysia were attacked. Firstly, he said that it would, adding ‘we haven’t stood aside yet when our friends [were] in need’, but later, under questioning from McEwen, he left open the question of whether it would be invoked in ‘grey areas’ involving conflict with Indonesian-sponsored ‘volunteers’.85

The importance of Harriman’s reaffirmation that the ANZUS Treaty applied to both Papua and New Guinea and that it could also apply in certain (undefined) circumstances to Malaysia was that it gave Menzies and others the confidence to think in terms of deploying Australian troops to Papua New Guinea in the knowledge that they would ultimately be supported by the United States. The UK High Commission in Canberra reported to London that the ‘Australians have been much comforted by the strong line taken in public by Mr Harriman when he re-affirmed that the Americans would regard an attack on Papua and New Guinea as coming under the ANZUS Treaty’.86

Menzies travelled to London and Washington in June and July 1963 where the principal topic of conversation was the establishment of Malaysia and the danger posed by Indonesian threats to destabilise it. At the same time, the possible Indonesian threat to Papua New Guinea remained very much on his mind. He told Macmillan that ‘Australia was becoming increasingly worried about East New Guinea and this was one reason why they had recently increased the size of the Pacific Islands Regiment’.87 Menzies noted that ‘the Chiefs of Staff no longer believed that East New Guinea was as important as they had at one time thought; this was partly because Indonesians would no doubt take Timor fairly soon and that was as near as New Guinea to Australia’.88 This was a curious comment given his remarks to his own Cabinet and his increasingly negative view of Sukarno and Indonesia’s intentions but should be seen in the context of Indonesia possibly securing control over East Timor.89 Menzies had earlier told Peter Thorneycroft (Defence Secretary) that ‘any estimated threat from Indonesia … might ultimately be directed in part against Australian New Guinea [although he thought this was unlikely to develop in the near future]. This would involve a direct threat to our own interests and place priority demand on our resources, but it would also bring the ANZUS Treaty into operation’.90

In Washington, Menzies talked up Australia’s strengthened military preparations. He told Rusk of the ‘substantial increase in the Australian defence programme … with additional expenditure of £50 million per annum’. A further £100 million would be committed if a new strike bomber were to be acquired. He added ‘this is quite a breakthrough’ and said that ‘Australia is now stiffening up her defence potential in East New Guinea’.91 In response, Rusk referred specifically to ‘possible Indonesian attempts at infiltration or other action to undermine Australian authority in Papua and East New Guinea’.92 The record of the meeting noted that ‘he put it to Sir Robert that Australia should be sensitive over the first Indonesian motion. The Indonesians should find out straight away that Australia is resolved to take firm action to keep Indonesian influence out of the territories’. Rusk added that if ‘you get into trouble on this, we will be with you’. It would appear that the Kennedy Administration, through Rusk, while rejecting the role of a global policeman, was prepared to extend its military support to cover Australian action in Papua New Guinea. The record concluded by noting that Menzies had drawn Rusk’s attention to his recent Defence Statement and that he had added ‘we regard East New Guinea as part of our territory and we will resist promptly any interference’.93 In a press conference on 14 July 1963 on his return to Australia, Menzies told the Australian public that he had also reiterated to the President that the ‘defence of Australian New Guinea and Papua was regarded by us in exactly the same way as the defence of our mainland and that any overt attack on it would be resisted in the same way… it is well understood and agreed that should such an event occur, ANZUS would operate and we would have the assistance of the United States of America’.94

As the date for the creation of Malaysia drew closer Indonesia’s aggressive and uncooperative behaviour continued to arouse concerns in Canberra. In May 1963 Barwick publicly described Indonesia as a ‘militant power … [with] a disposition to expand’.95 In August 1963, following the outcome of the Malaysian–Philippine–Indonesian leaders’ talks, a frustrated and disillusioned Menzies wrote to Barwick that ‘once more Sukarno has succeeded in his policy of threats … I think we are in great danger in taking and encouraging too soft a line with Sukarno. Like all the dictators he will get what he can by threat and bluff. Each concession made to him increases his appetite’.96

In Cabinet, ministers showed a further hardening in their attitude towards Indonesia. Barwick had suggested in a Cabinet meeting on 6 August 1963 that there may be some advantage in consulting Indonesia as an interested party on regional political issues. Hasluck immediately disagreed and instead described Indonesia as not wanting ‘consultations except that which brings the concessions it wants – we can’t escape the fact that we must thwart Indonesia – not consult and humour it’.97 Later in the meeting he said he ‘regard[ed] Indonesia as imperialist and expansionist. Indonesia is seeking [to] develop as the continuing dominant power in South East Asia – don’t think that suits us at all – our job, without getting into conditions of enmity with Indonesia is not to knit Indonesia-Philippines-Malaysia but to keep them apart. … We must continue our military aid to Malaysia and by diplomacy weaken the bonds of Malphilindo’.98 Menzies also saw a problem with Barwick’s suggestion of consulting Indonesia. He commented that if taken to its logical conclusion Indonesia would have a ‘legitimate interest in PNG’.99 Menzies, who since 1950 had engaged in countless discussions in Cabinet on Indonesia, had lost patience with Sukarno and was much less inclined to adopt a conciliatory line.100 Barwick floated the idea of a non-aggression pact between Indonesia and Malaysia which ‘would assist our presentation of our stationing of forces in Malaysia’. Cabinet rejected the suggestion with McEwen arguing that it ‘would give a nudge to neutralism and [the] closing down [of] our bases. Out go our forces – would suit the Indonesians’.101

The six months from July to December 1963 were one of the most challenging and difficult periods in the history of Australia’s response to developments in Southeast Asia. The government’s in-principle support for the concept of Malaysia did not falter nor did its preparedness to associate Australia with the defence of Malaysia in some way. The government was under increasing strain and ministers felt the need to clarify whether and under what circumstances the ANZUS Treaty would apply to Australian military activity in Malaysia.102 In this environment Barwick embarked on a round of consultations beginning in Jakarta in September and ending in Washington, first for a series of bilateral meetings with the Kennedy Administration and then a quadripartite meeting with senior representatives from the UK, US and New Zealand on a policy response to Confrontation. Harold Holt also visited Washington and described Indonesia to the President as ‘behaving like a juvenile delinquent’.103 Eventually Barwick negotiated a form of words to cover the question of the application of the ANZUS Treaty to include overt attacks by Indonesia on Australian forces in Malaysia. In the middle of this hectic period of diplomacy Menzies, on 14 October, called an election for the House of Representatives confident that he could use differences with the Labor Party over foreign and defence policies to his advantage.104

Australia to defend Malaysia and Papua New Guinea

Shortly before Barwick left to attend the ceremonies marking the formation of Malaysia, Cabinet took the decision to ‘associate’ itself with the revised UK–Malaysia defence arrangements to come into effect on Malaysia Day, i.e. the day Malaysia was to be officially created. Rather than opting to become a full party to the Anglo-Malaysian Defence Agreement or negotiating its own agreement with Malaysia, Australia instead decided to ‘associate’ itself with the revised Anglo-Malaysia Agreement. In doing so the government made clear that the ‘primary responsibility for the security and defence of Malaysia clearly remains a UK responsibility’ although it also argued that ‘the extended geographical area and the enhancement of the threat from Indonesia does, in fact, mean that Australia under the new arrangement would be accepting a greater commitment than hitherto’.105 Menzies formally advised the House of Representatives on 25 September 1963 of the government’s decision. He told the House that if Malaysia were subject to ‘armed invasion or subversive activity – supported or directed or inspired from outside Malaysia – we shall to the best of our powers … add our military assistance to the efforts of Malaysia and the United Kingdom in the defence of Malaysia’s territorial integrity and political independence’.106 Holt later told President Kennedy that this was ‘the strongest guarantee that Australia had ever issued’.107 Menzies’s statement had been made in the wake of Indonesian mobs attacking the British and Malaysian diplomatic missions in Jakarta.

As Barwick prepared to visit Jakarta Menzies paid his second visit to Papua and New Guinea as Prime Minister. He delivered a radio broadcast in Port Moresby on 6 September 1963 in which he spoke of the government’s commitment to continue to assist the development of the territories and pointed to a 25 per cent increase in the territories’ budget in 1963 over the previous year. He referred to the ‘bitter and devastating experience’ of invasion and repeated the words of his statement in Canberra that ‘we will defend these territories as if they were part of our mainland’. Menzies again referred to the ‘staunch backing of our ANZUS partner the United States’s in the defence of Papua and New Guinea’.108

In contrast to the welcoming audience for Menzies in Papua and New Guinea, Barwick met an ‘obdurate’ Sukarno in a ‘determinedly irrational mood’.109 Barwick could not budge Sukarno from his implacable opposition to the formation of Malaysia.110 He cautioned Sukarno that Australia and other countries ‘were beginning to doubt the bona fides of Indonesia’ as it raised repeated objections to the Michelmore-led UN sponsored survey of opinion in Sarawak and North Borneo. He warned that ‘a sharp deterioration in relations between Indonesia and Australia would be tragic’ but ‘the ordinary Australians would react against current Indonesian behaviour’. Barwick continued to press the argument that Indonesia’s obduracy risked long-term consequences for the good will and relationship between the two countries and called for a period of quiet. Sukarno told Barwick that he wanted a close relationship with Australia but this would not divert him from his present course of opposing Malaysia. There was no mention of East New Guinea in this meeting. It was raised in the meeting with Subandrio but only in the context of a discussion of the placement of border markers on the Irian Jaya/East New Guinea border. Barwick also gave Subandrio an undertaking that Australia would not allow dissident groups to use Papua and New Guinea as a base for radio broadcasts into Irian Jaya – a claim made earlier in the year by Indonesia.

Barwick’s meetings in New York and Washington with senior officials from the Kennedy Administration, culminating in a meeting on 17 October with the President, focused on Indonesia, Malaysia and clarifying the terms under which Australia’s possible involvement in a conflict in Malaysia would invoke the ANZUS Treaty. He also used the meetings to set out the case in the clearest terms that Australia now viewed Indonesia as driven by ‘extreme nationalism’ and ‘the need for foreign adventures’ which had become ‘a dynamic which was no longer under full control’. Barwick described Indonesia as suffering from a ‘form of national paranoia’ which allowed it to think there was a plot to deny it the ‘greatness entitled to them’.111 He identified Portuguese Timor and possibly East New Guinea as the likely targets of Indonesian interest, after Malaysia.112 Barwick told Walt Rostow (Chair of the State Department’s Policy Planning Council) and George Ball (Under Secretary of State) that ‘in due time’ Indonesia’s anti-colonialism would lead it to ‘turn on East New Guinea’ and that Indonesia had said it would support any dissident movements should they appear in the territory.113 He told Rusk of Indonesia’s reluctance to cooperate on the photographing of the Irian Jaya/East New Guinea border and other recent complaints to which Rusk replied that ‘he hoped that we would react “like a fire cracker” at the first sign of Indonesian tinkering in East New Guinea’.114 Barwick also felt obliged to make the point in these conversations, albeit reluctantly, that despite the differences over Malaysia, Australia wanted to build a positive, long-term relationship with Indonesia.

In his conversation with the President on 17 October Barwick repeated his earlier remarks that he had ‘tried to avoid antipathy with Indonesia although this had caused him to be called an appeaser’. He told Kennedy that ‘Sukarno had told him quite frankly that he would support a dissident movement in East New Guinea. He did not feel that Indonesia had a plan for East New Guinea but that they were generally ambitious’. Barwick added that ‘they would have a dissident movement in East New Guinea, however, and that Sukarno would try to support it’.115 Kennedy is not recorded as directly responding to Barwick’s remarks. He instead pointed out that US policy was more nuanced or ‘ambivalent’ than Australia’s policy approach. Its aim had been ‘not to face Sukarno with a white trio and to avoid a polemic between Sukarno and the United States’.116 However, he could foresee a time when the United States might have to change its policy towards Indonesia.

The final meeting in Barwick’s round of consultations in Washington was the Four Power Talks held with the United States, Great Britain and New Zealand to discuss a policy approach to Confrontation. In preparing for the talks the British had recognised the sensitivity and importance of Papua New Guinea to Australia and Australia’s concern that ‘Sukarno’s ambitions extend further than Malaysia (this would include their New Guinea territories)’. The British decided to use these concerns to their advantage and briefed their delegation to ensure that ‘we must make absolutely certain it [East New Guinea] is not overlooked. … The Americans have given clear undertakings to defend it and they should be warned that if by misjudgement they let Malaysia slip away they will soon be called upon to honour their pledge in New Guinea’.117

Barwick was forceful in his arguments. He again described Indonesia as ‘expansionist’ and driven either by ‘paranoia or territorial greed’. He went further than in his earlier conversation when he said that ‘Indonesia had adopted a suicidal attitude of open and implacable hostility to Malaysia’. He asked:

what more could now be done by way of ‘carrot and stick’ without creating perils for Australia as well as other countries in the region? Timor would be an embarrassment but we’ve got East New Guinea and so [to Harriman] have you! The Indonesians have said they would support a dissident movement in East New Guinea and not withstanding our great efforts for the territory, the Indonesians could undoubtedly rake up some malcontents. Could the West then bear Sukarno up any longer. … The day a stronger Indonesia decided to confront Australia it would be too late for ‘carrots and sticks’.118

Barwick did not confine his argument to an American audience. He told Lord Home, the British Foreign Secretary, in a meeting in New York that Australia faced a difficulty with Indonesia given its ability to interfere with flights between Australia and the Philippines and Australia and Singapore. He also alerted Home to ‘Indonesia’s capacity to make trouble in Australian New Guinea where it was not likely Australia would be able to do enough or move fast enough to prevent malcontents actual or spurious arising’.119

Barwick would have been justified in assessing his talks with the Kennedy Administration and with Britain and New Zealand at the quadripartite talks as a success. He had negotiated a more precise description of the geographic range and application of the ANZUS Treaty to include Malaysia, under certain circumstances.120 He had secured from the United States a written understanding that the ANZUS Treaty would be invoked in the event of an overt attack by Indonesian armed forces on Australian defence forces in Malaysia. (Holt had earlier told Kennedy that Australia had made its public commitment on 25 September to assist in the defence of Malaysia on the assumption that Australia’s actions were covered by ANZUS.)121 The question of the exact nature of US assistance was left vague while the US made clear that ANZUS would not be invoked if clashes arose from subversion or guerrilla warfare. The United States had made clear that ANZUS would apply to Papua and New Guinea (as long as they remained Australian territories).122 The UK High Commission in Canberra commented to London that ‘the change in Australia’s policy seems quite genuinely to date from the time of Sir Garfield Barwick’s visit to Indonesia in September which clearly convinced him about Indonesia’s long term ambitions (of which Sir Robert Menzies himself had never been in doubt)’.123

Barwick (and Holt) had acknowledged in their conversations in Washington the importance of maintaining a functional, long-term relationship with Indonesia. This remained a key government objective in the months ahead but the balance was moving towards an assessment that Sukarno’s Indonesia was a threat to Australia’s interests in the region and that, if left unchecked, this threat could, possibly, extend to East New Guinea. The question was how to respond.


The period of calm which had characterised the months between the end of the West New Guinea dispute and the beginning of Confrontation was a brief interlude that allowed for some more mellow judgements about Indonesia and President Sukarno. It did not last long. Instead, as Confrontation began to escalate, concern deepened in Canberra as to Sukarno’s ambitions and whether Australia was able militarily to respond to them to defend its interests. A sense of panic began to take hold as ministers looked for immediate measures to improve the defence preparedness of Papua New Guinea and Australia’s own defence preparations. Australia embarked on one of the most rapid increases in its defence budget in its peacetime history. Menzies made clear for the first of a number of times that Australia would defend Papua New Guinea if it were the subject of Indonesian subversion or infiltration. Australia sought and gained a clarification of the application of the ANZUS Treaty which reassured ministers but they nevertheless remained alarmed and nervous about Sukarno’s ambitions. Again, the place of Papua New Guinea in Australia’s security environment emerged as a major consideration in ministers’ thinking.

Woodard, in his book Asian Alternatives, provides a masterful insider’s account of Barwick’s management of the early phase of Confrontation. His thesis is that Barwick was more pragmatic and independent in his approach to foreign policy and as such would have pursued a policy which sought to build a relationship with Indonesia rather than antagonise it. Similarly, Barwick’s focus on Indonesia meant that he would have resisted attempts to lead Australia into a commitment to the war in Vietnam. According to Woodard, ‘Barwick regarded going to war against a regional country, especially Indonesia, which was so important to the region and to Australia, as an enormous step with incalculable consequences in the long-term’.124 Woodard holds Barwick in the highest esteem, describing him as ‘the most powerful independent voice in Cabinet until his departure’.125 Peter Edwards shares Woodard’s assessment of Barwick and has praised his skill and statecraft in convincing the Cabinet ‘to adopt a nuanced and subtle approach’ towards Confrontation and Indonesia.126

At the time of its publication in 2004 Woodard’s account of the Menzies’s Government’s foreign policy did not have access to the Cabinet Notebooks. Edwards’s article, published in 2015, may also not have had access to all of the discussions in Cabinet over Confrontation. As argued elsewhere, the debates in Cabinet were more subtle and arguments about Indonesia more discerning than historians have to date described. With the exception of Hasluck who, in this period, held the most conservative and dogmatic views about how Australia should relate to Indonesia, ministers, notably McEwen, were sensitive to the impact of Australia’s actions in Southeast Asia. Woodard and Edwards present Barwick as almost a lone voice in Cabinet arguing for maintaining a relationship with Indonesia. This underestimates the role of some of his colleagues who were just as influential in guiding policy.

Australia's Northern Shield?

   by Bruce Hunt