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20 Conference of Australian and New Zealand Ministers

Proceedings of the Conference CANBERRA, 18 January 1944




1. Fundamental Concept The fundamental concept of the Defence Committee is that the best defence of Australia and New Zealand is to be secured by a system of defence based on the island screen to the north of these Dominions.

The purpose of such a system of defence is to preserve the strategical isolation of Australia and New Zealand, whose security is linked with that of the adjacent islands. In the hands of ourselves or a friendly Power and adequately defended, they are a bulwark to the defence of Australia and New Zealand and points of offensive action against an enemy. In possession of an enemy, they are spring-boards for offensive action against our mainlands.

The realization of the ideal strategical concept of the Defence Committee involves the following important considerations:-

The strength of the Dominion Forces available for their defence, and the assistance that will be forthcoming from other parts of the Empire and other nations in any system of Empire and international co-operation.

2. Strategical Location It is vital that the forward bases should be located where their maintenance can be ensured. They should not be capable of being bypassed, neutralized and ultimately occupied.

3. Strength of Forces Available for Defence of Screen The holding of the island screen means sea power, air power and garrisons with installation facilities, such as docks, aerodromes and defences.

The local defence of the mainlands of Australia and New Zealand entails similar demands.

The crux of the situation is the extent of the capacity of Australia and New Zealand to provide for the defence of the screen and, at the same time, for the local defence of their territories.

As the Defence Committee says, 'It is impracticable for Australia and New Zealand to defend the area unaided'.

In regard to sea power, it is necessary, in order to combat a potential enemy such as Japan, to have a base in a suitable strategical position (such as Singapore), and a fleet which can ensure command of the sea in the South-West Pacific Area, apart from the maintenance of overseas communication to this area.

Australia and New Zealand cannot provide a fleet and equip a base on a parallel of what was contemplated in regard to Singapore as the bastion of the defence of British interests in the Pacific.

Co-operation with the United Kingdom is therefore essential. If the base should fall and the fleet should fail to come, as happened with Singapore, the defence of the whole screen collapses and the outlying island bases with their garrisons become hostages to fortune. A power with command of the sea and air could readily subdue them. This was what happened in Timor, Ambon and Rabaul. In such circumstances, the mainlands of Australia and New Zealand become wide open to attack.

In regard to the strength of the Australian and New Zealand land and air forces to provide for the local defence of their mainlands and the defence of the bases in the island screen, the Defence Committee is of the view that this cannot be determined at present, because the post-war situation cannot be foreseen.

Neither can the Government say what proportion of the budget will be able to devote to defence, with other commitments of a post-war nature with which it will be faced.


4. Security to be achieved by a Synthesis of National Defence, Empire Co-operation and Collective Security on a World and Regional Basis

The defence of the screen involves co-operation with the United Kingdom and with foreign powers such as the Netherlands (for the Netherlands East Indies and Dutch Timor), Portugal (for Portuguese Timor), the United States (for American possessions in the South- West Pacific), and France (for New Caledonia, the New Hebrides, and other Pacific Islands).

The security of any part of the British Empire in the future will rest on three safeguards, each wider in its scope than the other- (i) Firstly, there is national defence, the policy for which is purely the responsibility of the Government concerned. The extent and nature of its defence policy is influenced by (ii) and (iii).

(ii) Then there is the degree of Empire co-operation which can be established. This is a matter of agreement between the Governments of the parts of the Empire.

(iii) Finally, there is the system of collective security which can be organized on a world and regional basis.

More speedy progress is possible in regard to (ii) than (iii), though both are complementary to each other. It is important to the defence of the British Commonwealth that an understanding should be reached as quickly as possible in regard to closer co- operation in Empire defence.


5. The Difficulties in Reaching Finality at Present The full experience of this war has still to be learnt by the campaigns that lie ahead to defeat the Japanese. The nature, strength and organization of national defence forces cannot yet be determined. They are influenced by the degree of Empire co- operation which can be established and the system of collective security which can be organized.

The Australian Defence Committee has been given the following standing instruction to keep constantly in mind the question of postwar defence policy from the following angles and to report its views when a firm basis for them has been established:-

(i) The experience of this war in relation to the principles of Australian and Empire defence, and to the nature, strength, and organization of the Australian Forces.

(ii) As and when any progress is made in regard to the principles and nature of the collective system, either on a world or regional basis, their implications in regard to Australian defence should be considered.

The Defence Committee comprises the three Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary, Department of Defence, with power to co-opt other persons, e.g., General MacArthur is represented by an American officer when questions relating to United States forces in the South-West Pacific Area are under consideration.

The Australian Government would welcome a New Zealand representative or representatives when it is felt that a stage had been reached at which advantages could be gained from the joint examination of mutual problems. On a lower level, New Zealand representation would also be welcomed on the Joint Planning Committee.

In London, the parallel joint staff machinery functions under the Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, who in peace is Chairman of the Committee of Imperial Defence, which in war is superseded by the War Cabinet, in which Dominion accredited representatives are entitled to be heard in the formulation and direction of policy, when matters affecting them are under discussion. Dominion Service representatives in London also maintain close liaison with the joint staff machinery.

There is also an integration of the land forces of the Empire through the Imperial General Staff of which the Dominion General Staffs are sections. Parallel relations have also been developed between the Naval and Air Staffs of the Empire.

The conclusions of study of Australian and New Zealand staffs, after they have been considered by their respective Governments and at a further conference similar to the present one, could be remitted to the Prime Ministers' Conference in London for examination and report from the aspect of Empire co-operation in defence. Political discussions regarding security in the South- West Pacific Region could simultaneously be conducted between the nations concerned.

[AA:A989, 43/735/168]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013

Category: International relations

Topic: History