The South-East Asia Treaty Organisation was set up as a result of the South-East Asia Collective Defence Treaty, which New Zealand signed on 8 September 1954 together with Australia, France, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The background was the expansion of Communist power in South-East Asia, dramatised by the fall of Dien Bien Phu and, earlier in that year, the Geneva Conference on Indo-China. The initiative towards united action to resist such expansion came from the United States and led to an eight-government conference at Manila in August, in which New Zealand participated.
The major purposes of the Treaty and the Organisation are set out in Articles III, IV, and V. They are:
The promotion of economic progress and well being;
Action to meet armed attack against the parties to the Treaty and also against any state or territory which the parties may unanimously designate: further, the signatories are to consult about any threat short of armed attack, whether against a party to the Treaty or a designated territory, which endangers the peace of the area;
The establishment of a Council of Ministers to put the Treaty into effect, and especially to undertake military and any other planning.
A protocol to the treaty designated Cambodia, Laos, and free Vietnam under Article IV (section 2, above).
The headquarters of the Organisation were set up at Bangkok, with special committees under a body of “Council Representatives” who carry on while the Council is not in session. Council meetings have been held regularly, once (1959) in Wellington. New Zealand has taken part at all levels of the Organisation and also in combined military and naval exercises.
Not long after SEATO was set up it became clear that the Communist threat had altered from the possibility of armed attack to the actuality of infiltration, subversion, and attempts at economic domination. Accordingly, at SEATO Councils increasing stress has been placed upon the need to develop economic resources within the Treaty area to raise living standards as the surest guarantee against subversion, while maintaining defensive preparedness. New Zealand's spokesmen have tended to stress this aspect of SEATO's work and to minimise its role of direct military intervention. New Zealand offers 25 awards annually for trade trainees from SEATO countries and finances four scholarships at the Graduate School of Engineering set up by SEATO at Bangkok. Generally speaking, New Zealand has been anxious to use SEATO for purposes other than those which predominated in its creation, chiefly as an additional channel for economic and technical assistance.