Book Review: Australia's Northern Shield?: Papua New Guinea and the Defence of Australia Since 1880


by Bruce Hunt

Clayton, Vic.: Monash University / Portland, Or: ISBS, 2017. Pp. xxvi, 374. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $39.95 paper. ISBN: 192549540X

Defending Australia’s Northern Flank

In this work the late Australian diplomat Hunt examines the long history of Australia’s strategic interest in Papua New Guinea, the quasi-continent just to the north of the Commonwealth.

Well before Australian unification in 1901, leaders of the individual colonies had expressed concerns over the threat of a hostile power gaining control of the vast island to the north. By the early 1880s, the Dutch had taken over the western part, and the Germans acquired the northeastern quarter, and some important adjacent island chains. As a result, in 1883 the colonies, acting in unison, essentially forced Britain to take over southeastern New Guinea, known as Papua.

Hunt carries the story of the Australian relationship with the region through World War I, early in which small military expeditions seized the German colonies for young Commonwealth. Postwar, Australia retained control of the former German colonies, under a League of Nations Mandate, while continuing to govern Papua. During this period the perception of a Japanese “threat” from the north, grew, but militarily there was little the Commonwealth, or the British Empire as a whole, could do to secure the region against a determined enemy.

In discussing the role of the region in Commonwealth defense during the Second World War, Hunt covers the Japanese invasion of during Papua New Guinea. The territory quite literally became a “shield” for Australia, held, barely and at the cost of costing numerous lives in brutal jungle fighting.

Hunt then takes up developments in the post war period and the Cold War.

Gaining their independence from the Dutch, the Indonesians pressed claims – at times employing not so covert force – for the Netherlands New Guinea, which were realized in 1962, despite the fact that the indigenous peoples were significantly different from Indonesian both ethnically and culturally. The Indonesians then attempted to use same tactics against the newly formed Malaysia. This inevitably drew Australia into the diplomatic – and at times military – imbroglio until the collapse of the Indonesian efforts in the late 1960s.

Hunt concludes with a short history of the continuing close relations between Australia and Papua New Guinea after the territories became independent in 1975.

Hunt covers the ins and outs of local, regional, and Commonwealth politics, and the contingent military developments, including its influence on the formation of Commonwealth defense policy across the Twentieth Century.

Although primarily for the specialist in Commonwealth security developments, Australia’s Northern Shield?, a volume in the Monash University series “Investigating Power”, will also prove useful reading for anyone interested in the formation of defense policy and strategy,

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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