Scars from Japan’s bombing of Australia 80 years ago linger and now shape its attitude towards China
World War II was undoubtedly the first war in heaven. When you think of the air conflict, the Battle of Britain, the carpet bombing of German cities, the attacks on Gorky, the V1 and V2 rockets, Pearl Harbor and the atomic bombs, everything comes to mind. Yet February 19 marks the 80th anniversary of one of the war’s lesser-known air attacks: the bombing of Darwin.
Most people outside Australia are unaware that the Australian mainland was the subject of a deadly air raid. On the morning of February 19, 1942, 188 Japanese planes attacked Darwin, killing 235 people and wounding more than 400. Indeed, 30 Allied planes were destroyed, and 11 ships were sunk. More bombs were dropped on Darwin that day than fell on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Darwin’s attack also marked the start of a wider air campaign against northern Australia. There were 63 other attacks, although none as large or as devastating as the bombing of Darwin. The Japanese were able to attack because they had taken control of much of New Guinea, which is only 80 nautical miles (150 km) from the northernmost tip of Australia.
Although the Japanese never had any serious intention of invading Australia, mainly because of its size, the government and the public believed it to be a distinct possibility. Indeed, the threat of a Japanese invasion seemed so real that the Australians decided to return their forces from the Mediterranean theatre, much to the anger of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who wanted them instead to be sent to Burma to protect the British India.
Darwin’s bombardment and the fear of a Japanese invasion finally convinced Australians that they could no longer rely on the British Empire for protection. Britain’s resources at this point were already exhausted, with her cities ravaged by German bombs, as well as Axis fighting forces in North Africa and the Japanese in the Far East. As a result, Australia turned to the United States for protection.
American troops began arriving in Australia in early 1942 and during the war over a million people would pass through the country. Relations between Australia and the United States grew increasingly cordial, and Britain was supplanted as its main supporter. Ties with the ‘mother country’ have loosened and Canberra is now looking to Washington, rather than London, for help. The bombing of Darwin therefore had geopolitical consequences and was a nail in the coffin of the British Empire and British influence in the region.
The attack on Darwin and the fear of Japanese invasion were also seared into the Australian psyche and its effects are still felt today. The only difference is that distrust of Japan has been replaced by concerns about another East Asian power, China. Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that China is going to attack Australia like the Japanese did, because clearly they won’t. But China’s potential economic and military dominance over the region is very real.
Since the turn of the century, China has made serious economic inroads in the South Pacific. Indeed, since the millennium, Chinese trade in the region has increased 12-fold. A number of islands, which are the first on the planet to see the sunrise each day, increasingly align themselves with China. Additionally, 30% of New Zealand exports now go to China and the two countries recently announced that they have updated their 2009 free trade agreement.
New Zealand’s relative proximity to China is viewed with suspicion and is seen by some as a threat to the Five Eyes intelligence collection programme. Although New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has acknowledged that there are issues around which the two countries “don’t, can’t and won’t agree,she argued that differences should not define her country’s relationship with China
As New Zealand was prepared to deal with China, the Australian government began to take a more hostile stance. In recent years, Australia has “decoupled” from Chinese economic dependence and ripped off potential investment in its infrastructure. Australia clearly views Chinese influence in the region with suspicion, and while China remains Australia’s biggest trading partner, the two countries are embroiled in a protracted trade war.
The distrust, however, is not just limited to trade, as there are also military concerns – primarily over the rapidly expanding Chinese navy. Between 2015 and 2019, China built 132 new ships, compared to 68 in the United States and nine in Australia. China also has about 40 attack submarines, six of which are nuclear-powered. By comparison, the United States has 21 based in the Pacific and Australia only six relatively obsolete 1990s Swedish submarines.
The balance of power in the Pacific is on a knife edge, which is part of why Australia scrapped a deal with France to buy 12 diesel-powered submarines in favor of powered alternatives nuclear weapons built by the United States. The controversial deal, known as AUKUS because it also includes the UK, is clearly designed to counter growing Chinese military strength in the region. Additionally, earlier this week a new £25million security package was signed between Australia and the UK to “building resilience in cyberspace, state threats and maritime security.”
The perceived threat from China has also seeped into political discourse in Australia, and it will be a major issue ahead of the federal election in May. For example, last week Prime Minister Scott Morrison accused Labor Deputy Leader Richard Marles of being a “Manchurian Candidate.” The basis for this was that Marles had already spoken of his respect for China when he visited Beijing in 2019. I think it’s fair to assume that complaints and counter-complaints of this nature will be common in the approach of the elections.
Although Darwin’s bombing is relatively unknown outside of Australia, it had a profound effect on the world we live in today. And for this reason, it deserves to be both remembered and more widely recognized. This marked the collapse of British influence in the South Pacific and its replacement by the United States as the dominant power. Darwin’s scars are also etched into the Australian psyche, and one could argue that the country’s attitude towards China is an extension of what happened eighty years ago today.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.