October 23, 2023 –When Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese meets US President Joe Biden in Washington this week, deterring an assertive China will be on the agenda. At home, Darwin – a city key to the US-led defence alliance in the Pacific – will be watching.
War first came to Australia’s shores on a Thursday morning in 1942, when 188 Japanese aircraft appeared over the centre of Darwin.
Bombs rained down on the coast, spraying red dirt and shrouding the turquoise harbour in smoke and fire. The two air raids nearly flattened the town, killing at least 230 people.
That day – 19 February – was a precursor to some 200 raids across northern Australia, but it remains the deadliest attack on the country.
Eighty years on, Darwin is a laid-back holiday spot that bears few visible scars of war. But there are simmering fears that this city may find itself in the crosshairs of a global conflict again.
Home to several key military bases which could prove crucial in any clash with China, Darwin is at the heart of deepening ties between Canberra and Washington, and the focus of massive investment from both governments.
But while American interest is reassuring for those who are wary of Beijing’s power, there is alarm for some who worry it makes their home a target.
“You’re inviting conflict,” says local Billee McGinley, part of the Top End Peace Alliance, a local activist group. On a recent October afternoon, the group took turns sharing their concerns in the shadow of the city’s war memorial Cenotaph.
“We feel like a sacrifice,” she says.
Face of the north
Darwin has long been a military town. You can drive across the sparsely populated city in about 15 minutes, but it is home to two military bases. Another one sits on its fringe.
It is more common to see someone in military fatigues than a suit. And the roar of aircraft overhead is just another soundtrack to life here.
Defence families are a large chunk of the population – and that doesn’t include the thousands of international troops that arrive each year for war games and training. The industry is an even larger proportion of the economy.
And it’s clear the military footprint in the so-called “Top End” is only going to grow.
Australia had maintained it didn’t have to choose between the US and China. But that calculation has changed. Ties have soured between Washington and Beijing, and the latter’s claims over the South China Sea and Taiwan have become more expansive and threatening.
So Canberra says it has woken up to its vital role in ensuring security and stability in the region, with fresh commitments to allies and a massive overhaul of its defence spend.
Enter, Darwin – “the face of the north”.
“Looking at a map, the strategic importance of Darwin is obvious,” says defence analyst Michael Shoebridge.
The Australian government has announced it’s moving hundreds more troops to Darwin and other northern cities, and it has also promised a large chunk of its new defence budget will go towards fortifying the region.
While the US has historically focussed on Guam, Hawaii or Okinawa, it too is now pouring money into Australia.
It already operates year-round at the Pine Gap spy base outside Alice Springs in central Australia, and has since 2011 been sending annual rotations of US Marines – this year some 2,500 of them – to the Northern Territory (NT), where Darwin is located.
But in recent years it has promised about $2bn for base upgrades and new facilities. In Darwin, that includes a mission planning and operations centre and 11 jet fuel storage tanks. A couple of hours south – at the Tindal air base – storage hangers for nuclear-capable bomber planes and a huge ammunition bunker will be built.
Australia and the US have also signed bilateral defence agreements and further military cooperation is expected to be high on the agenda during Mr Albanese’s trip to Washington.
Experts say the military build-up in the Top End – by both Australia and the US – is aimed at dispersing resources, and risk, around the region to “complicate” any war strategy by Beijing. But it is primarily about preventing war.
“It’s obvious that diplomacy and all of the fora and meetings that exist in the region are not preventing China’s aggression and intimidation,” Mr Shoebridge says. “So, to deter conflict, there needs to be enough hard power, not in China’s hands, so that Beijing understands the cost of conflict would be too great.”[And] no collective defence strategy makes any sense in our region without the Americans being part of it.”
Target on Darwin
But that’s making some Darwin locals uneasy.
Though there’s differing opinions on the likelihood of a conflict with China, they’re worried the build-up won’t deter Beijing, but rather escalate tensions. They fear the US presence in Darwin could pressure Australia into a war it simply shouldn’t be involved in, and make their city a target.
“If you position yourself as neutral and peaceful, it would be a war crime to come here,” Ms McGinley says.
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She’s so terrified about Darwin’s future she’s considering her family’s place in it: “It’s definitely a consideration, with a young daughter, whether I stay here or not.”
There are more immediate concerns too. In recent months, a US marine has been charged with rape and an American Osprey helicopter crashed and exploded near a school. And there’s the impact these expanding bases – and any potential attack – could have on the Aboriginal cultural heritage and natural beauty the NT is known for.
Because so few people live in the NT, it is treated as “expendable”, says Diana Rickard, who runs the Top End Peace Alliance.
“This has always been considered the wasteland… it still is,” she adds.
“The risks and impacts and threats are externalised onto people that live here. But any kind of perceived benefit… is for people elsewhere,” Naish Gawen, another local, says.
But the Peace Alliance says their concerns don’t seem to be resonating with the community or being heard by people in power.
They certainly don’t appear to be widespread. Walking around Darwin, it can feel like there is a general mood of nonchalance about the military presence.
“It’s not something that I’ve heard much about,” one local, 30-year-old Brianna, says.
The local business chamber and politicians from across the aisle sell the economic benefits of the defence investments.
The NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles and national Defence Minister Richard Marles did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment. But Mr Marles has previously said Darwin is a “significant” national “asset”, something that is “good news for the Territory’s economy”.
“It is fundamentally important that we have the footprint here,” he said in April.
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Experts, though, don’t rule out the possibility that Darwin will become a target.
Defence strategist Becca Wasser has spent years wargaming what might happen in the event of a conflict in the region. In most of the scenarios she’s run, China does attempt missile attacks on Australia.
But they have limited success given the technology Beijing possesses and the more than 4,000km (2485 miles) between mainland China and Australia.
“In fact, most of them usually don’t reach even the most northern bases,” she says. But it’s not the existence of the bases that makes Darwin a target, she stressed – whether Australia uses them to send troops is the key factor.
Australia has joined almost every single coalition operation that the United States has fought in recent years, she adds, but that is no guarantee Australia will choose to join any future wars.
“The decision to contribute forces to any conflict, it’s a political decision, and it’s one that Australia makes on its own. It’s not something that the United States can just determine,” she says.
Even those whose families lived through the 1942 bombing of Darwin seem to accept the city’s new military reality.
Richard Fejo recounts stories that have been passed down from his grandfather, Juma Fejo, and his great uncle Samuel Fejo. The Larrika elder says the pair never recovered from the loss of human life they witnessed, and the impact on their ancestral home.
“In Aboriginal culture, we say the land is our mother… and so something as terrible as the bombing of Darwin, as a Larrakia person, would have been like putting a knife through their heart,” he says.
While he’s daunted by the prospect of war returning to his home, “I consider myself to be a realist,” he says.
“These people who would stand up and argue about Americans being on Larrakia land, what option are you offering us? We must… remember our past, but we also must be prepared for the future.”