PNG historians record the other side of the WWII story
Trading Treasure for Trifles

The decision of 1919 that has significant implications for today


THE battles along the Kokoda Track 75 years ago are regarded as some of the most important battles fought by Australians in World War II.

Few Australians realise, however, but for some boring treaty negotiations 23 years earlier, the Kokoda campaign and all of World War II could have played out very differently for Australia.

Following World War I, people expected Germany’s Pacific possessions to be allocated to a British ally - Japan.

As a loyal ally, Japan had declared war on Germany in 1914 and, as part of its alliance agreements, its responsibilities included pursuing and destroying the German East Asiatic Squadron and protection of the shipping lanes for Allied commerce in the Pacific.

In 1914, most of Germany’s Pacific colonies were administered by German New Guinea – the northern half of the country now called Papua New Guinea. The southern half - Papua - was an Australian colony.

During the Versailles Treaty negotiations in 1919, Japan expected to take over German New Guinea. However, Australia’s Prime Minister Billy Hughes worked with United States President Woodrow Wilson to deny Japan gaining all German colonies in the Pacific.

Japan was successful in gaining former German Pacific colonies north of the equator (including in China) but German New Guinea became a League of Nations mandate to Australia. German Samoa was given to New Zealand.

While there were significant financial and other obligations on Australia from taking on special responsibilities for German New Guinea, Billy Hughes argued these were justified by broader security interests - a prescient vision which should not be forgotten.

The implications of a Japanese New Guinea from 1919 are now impossible to ascertain but Australian history would almost certainly read differently.

The islands Japan gained in the Pacific after World War I were important for its advance throughout Asia in World War II. For example, Kwajalein Atoll supported the attack on Pearl Harbour, Palau the invasion of the Philippines, Saipan the Battle of Guam, Truk assisted Japan take Rabaul and the Gilbert Islands – now Kiribati and Jaluit Atoll - were helpful in seizing Nauru.

If Japan had gained German New Guinea it would have, over the next 20 years, established supply lines and fortifications right up to the Australian New Guinea (Papuan) border.

The outcomes along the Kokoda track, despite the extraordinary courage shown by Australian soldiers, would have been much more uncertain and a loss more likely.

A land-based invasion of Port Moresby – possibly much earlier in the war - could have quickly established a base for extensive bombing and other attacks across northern Queensland.

A naval base in Rabaul, fortified by Japan during the 1920s and 1930s, could also have changed the outcome of important engagements like the Battle of the Coral Sea.

And with an ally of Germany and Italy having a colony so close to Australia, probably fewer of our troops would have been sent to Europe and the Middle East in 1939.

Australia’s current approach to Papua New Guinea, perhaps we can call it “benign neglect” but possibly something worse, is of strategic concern as China extends its influence in the region.

Since PNG gained independence from Australia in 1975, we have cut back our assistance to only one-quarter of previous levels in per capita terms (based on 2016 prices). These cutbacks are a primary cause of the reduction in health and educational services that see PNG’s human development ranking continue to fall.

For most Papua New Guineans, there has been little development over the last 41 years. An estimated three million people live in absolute poverty.

An election is underway in PNG with writs issued on 20 April, but the forthcoming ballot is affected by the steady erosion of democratic rights by the increasingly autocratic government of Peter O’Neill.

While there is international concern about new Chinese bases in the South China Sea, an even greater concern would be for another foreign power to gain effective control of a major base in PNG. The consequences of not securing our region could be catastrophic.

Bombs fall on Port MoresbyThe Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels assisting our wounded troops remains a symbol of Australia’s indebtedness to the people of Papua New Guinea. There are many lessons from the courage displayed along the Kokoda Track in 1942.

But possibly the key lesson is the importance of having another Australian prime minister, like Billy Hughes, who is willing to take the risk and commit the resources to help secure our strategic interests in the region.

Australia’s current approach towards our very near neighbour PNG, circumscribed by the shame of the Manus Island detention centre, does not display such a wise vision.

Paul Flanagan is Director of Indo-Pacific Public Policy and Economics


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Bernard Corden

Dear Paul,

You could also add the Burmese people. Whilst I am not an acolyte of Churchill, he did often make some thought provoking comments such as...." You can tell how civilised a nation is by the way it treats its prisoners"

Paul Oates


There may well be something in what you say however I firmly believe the PNG people would have had a very different life under Imperial Japanese rule. Just ask the Koreans and Chinese.

Bernard Corden

Dear Paul,

It contains too many two syllable words for Turnbull's cabinet ministers.

Scomo has two books on economics and has just finished colouring in the first one (This was originally one of Gough's comments about Clyde Cameron)

Philip Fitzpatrick

Some historians would have it that the USA used Billy Hughes as their puppet against Japan. The USA's opposition to Japan was strategically motivated but also racially motivated. They didn't want them in the League of Nations and pushed Hughes to the front so they weren't seen as the main activist.

Some historians also think that these actions eventually precipitated the attack on Pearl Harbour.

The USA has a long history of manipulating Australia for its own ends. The farcical vote that gave West Papua to the Indonesians is another example.

Now it looks like they'll drag us into Donald Trump's wild dreams.

Before the Americans it was the British using Australia for its own ends viz the debacle of Gallipoli.

One day Australia will have to stand on its own two feet - the sooner the better.

Paul Oates

Every Australian and most importantly, every Australian politician should read this article.

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