The deadly anniversary that reminds a nation of its vulnerability — Analysis
The scars of Australia’s bombing by Japan 80 years ago still linger, and are now shaping its attitude towards China
Without a doubt, the Second World War is the first war to take place from the skies. The Battle of Britain and the bombing of German cities by carpet are all examples of aerial conflicts. The bombing of Darwin, which took place on February 19, is the 80th anniversary for one of the less well-known aerial attacks during World War II.
The Australian mainland was subject to a devastating air attack by most people who live outside Australia. On February 19, 1942, 188 Japanese aircraft attacked Darwin. They killed 235 and injured more than 400. In reality, the attack resulted in 30 aircraft being destroyed by allied air forces and 11 vessels sinking. That day, Darwin was hit with more bombs than Pearl Harbour’s December 1941.
It was also the beginning of a larger aerial campaign against north Australia. Another 63 attacks were launched, but none as serious or destructive as Darwin’s bombing. The Japanese were able to attack because they had gained control of much of New Guinea, which is only 80 nautical miles (150km) from Australia’s northernmost tip.
The Japanese did not intend to invade Australia. This was primarily due to Australia’s size. However, it seemed plausible that they might. The Japanese threat to invade Australia seemed very real. Thus, Australians returned their troops from the Mediterranean theatre to avoid it. Winston Churchill wanted them sent to Burma, but the Australians agreed to do so.
Australians realized that the British Empire was no longer their only protection after the bombardment of Darwin. Britain’s resources by this point were already stretched to the limit, with its cities ravaged by German bombs, as well as fighting Axis forces in North Africa, and Japanese in the Far East. Australia turned to America for help.
In 1942, US troops arrived in Australia. During World War II more than one-million people passed through Australia. Relationships between Australia, the US and Britain became closer and Britain was replaced as Australia’s main defender. The ties to the ‘Mother Country’ were loosened and Canberra now looked to Washington, rather than London, for aid. Therefore, the British Empire was put to shame by Darwin’s bombing. It had significant geopolitical effects and significantly reduced British influence.
Also, the Japanese attack on Darwin and fear of invasion have been deeply ingrained in the Australian consciousness. They can still feel the effects today. Only the difference now is that Japan’s wariness has been replaced with concerns about China, an East Asian powerhouse. Now, I am not suggesting for one moment that China is going to attack Australia like the Japanese did, because clearly it won’t. But China’s potential economic and military domination of the region is very real.
China has been the South Pacific’s economic ally since the start of the new century. In fact, the area has seen a 12 fold increase in Chinese trade since 2000. Many of these islands are among the first to experience the sun rise each morning and are now aligning with China. Moreover, 30% of New Zealand’s exports now go to China and the two countries recently announced that they have upgraded their 2009 Free Trade Agreement.
New Zealand’s relative closeness to China is looked upon with suspicion and is seen by some as a threat to the Five Eyes intelligence-gathering program. Although New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern has acknowledged that there are issues around which the two countries “Do not, can’t, or will not accept.” she has argued that the differences should not define her country’s relationship with China
While New Zealand was prepared to work with China, Australia has taken a hostile stand. In recent years, Australia has been ‘decoupling’ from Chinese economic reliance and has torn up prospective investments in its infrastructure. Australia clearly views Chinese influence in the region with suspicion, and even though China remains Australia’s largest trading partner, the two countries are involved in a protracted trade war.
The distrust, however, is not only confined to trade, as there are also military concerns – primarily over the rapid expansion of China’s navy. Between 2015 and 2019, China built 132 new vessels, compared to the US’ 68 and Australia’s nine. China has 40 nuclear-powered attack submarines. The US only has six of its obsolete, 1990s Swedish-built submarines and 21 are based in Australia.
Australia opted to replace 12 French-made diesel-powered subs with nuclear-powered ones. The Pacific balance is in a tense state. This controversial deal (also known as AUKUS), is intended to reduce the growing Chinese military might in the area. Moreover, earlier this week a new £25 million security package was signed between Australia and the UK to “Increase cyberspace and maritime security resilience.”
The perceived threat of China has also seeped into political discourse in Australia, and it will be a major issue in the run up to May’s federal election. For example, last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison accused the deputy leader of the Labor Party, Richard Marles, of being a “Manchurian Candidate.” The basis of this was that Marles had previously spoken of his respect for China when visiting Beijing in 2019. It is reasonable to expect that such claims and counter-claims will become commonplace as the election draws near.
The bombing of Darwin may not be well known outside Australia but it had an enormous impact on our world today. It is important to remember and be more widely recognized. It marked the fall of British control in South Pacific and replaced by America as the dominant force. The scars of Darwin are also etched into the Australian psyche, and it could be argued that the country’s attitude towards China is an extension of what happened eighty years ago today.
Statements, opinions and views expressed in this column do not reflect those of RT.