Wednesday marks 75 years since the British surrender at Singapore, a calamity that Winston Churchill pronounced as the 'the greatest disaster in British arms which our history records'. Eighty-five thousand British, Indian and Australian servicemen instantly became prisoners-of-war, added to those already captured or killed in Japan's 70-day blitzkrieg along the length of the Malay peninsula.
If the historical controversy between Australia and Britain over responsibility for the fall of Singapore has slowly ebbed, February 15, 1942 still stands out as an inflexion point of strategic significance. The United States has been Australia's chief protector and ally ever since.
Singapore's defenders outnumbered their attackers more than 2:1. But once Japan had established superiority at sea and in the air, sinking HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales in the South China Sea, the fate of Britain's Far Eastern bastion was sealed. Retired Rear Admiral Guy Griffiths of the Royal Australian Navy is a survivor of the Repulse – these events remain within living memory.
The loss of Malaya and Singapore triggered an unwinding of the British strategic position in south-east Asia. Australia's vulnerability was exposed when Darwin was bombed just four days later. Within weeks Japanese ground forces had lodged deep inside New Guinea and Burma. The US was also routed from south-east Asia, its besieged forces in the Philippines capitulating, in May, after demonstrating the kind of heroic resistance that Churchill had hoped for in vain from the Singapore garrison. Japan's navy was not checked until the Battle the Coral Sea. The battle, although inconclusive, confirmed America's maritime ascendance.
The fall of Singapore exposed the brittleness of Britain's imperial defence system, unable to meet simultaneous threats to the homeland and faraway dominions. The battle for Singapore was contested to the city's edges and until the surrender, fiercely in places. Yet its defence was bungled, even allowing for the diversion of weaponry to Europe. Singapore's 'fall' dealt a moral as well as material blow to British imperial prestige. Credibility was never fully restored even when the empire eventually struck back, from India, in the war's final year. Hubris hung heavy in the postwar tropic air, a whiff of betrayal lingering in Australian nostrils.
That said, Australia and Britain continued to fight together out of Singapore, defeating a decade-long insurgency in Malaya before countering confrontation with Indonesia. The Five Power Defence Arrangements, grouping Australia, Britain, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore, are a living legacy of those earlier commitments, though Canberra has long been the senior western partner.
How does all this relate to Australia's emerging strategic circumstances?
For the first time since the 1930s an Asian power is again challenging the prevailing order. The challenge China poses is broader and subtler than imperial Japan. But the conventional strategic dimension to that challenge is still important. Before Japan could eject the British and Americans from south-east Asia it had to establish forward bases in Indochina, something only enabled by France's defeat in June 1940 and alliance with Thailand.
China already has a significant capacity to project military power throughout maritime south-east Asia, including from its new forward facilities in the South China Sea. China's 21st century version of regional hegemony is unlikely to demand the physical conquest of territory along 20th century lines. The capability to intimidate and to intervene in support of Beijing's strategic interests is more likely to be used to gain psychological dominance within China's near abroad.
Singapore, as a sovereign city state, represents a very different kind of bastion to 1942: every bit as vital to holding south-east Asia's centre and a tougher nut to crack. Singapore recently found itself a target for hardball tactics when China seized its armoured vehicles in Hong Kong, while being trans-shipped back from exercises in Taiwan. Singapore has shown no signs of bowing to Chinese pressure, on Taiwan or the South China Sea. But this is unlikely to be the last incident of its kind.
For Australia, the question of how to 'defend' south-east Asia is both live again and more complex than during the cold war. Not only because of a direct challenge from a rising regional hegemon with revisionist designs. Canberra is simultaneously confronting disquieting questions about the reliability of entrusting its external security to a maritime great power, the US, that no longer automatically sees its vital security interests as being at stake in south-east Asia. At very least it will expect more of its regional allies.
Australia needs to relearn how to think more strategically and independently about south-east Asia than it has for a generation. That isn't as easy as it sounds given that Australia's depth of regional expertise has grown alarmingly thin. As I argued in an analysis for the Lowy Institute last year, Canberra's expanding defence and security partnership with Singapore assumes a potentially strategic dimension in this context.
The lessons of Singapore's fall 75 years ago appear anachronistic but are not as dryly historical as you might think.