Story: Asia and New Zealand

Page 3. War, empire and the new Commonwealth

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The Japanese invasion of China

Japan invaded Manchuria (a north-eastern Chinese province) in 1931, and China itself in 1937. New Zealand and the Soviet Union were the only countries in the League of Nations that supported Chinese calls for collective action to restrain Japanese aggression.

In New Zealand, Chinese businesspeople and the trade unions led a boycott of Japanese imports, while watersiders refused to load scrap metal destined for Japan. In 1939, as a humanitarian measure, the wives and children of Chinese residents were allowed into New Zealand to escape the fighting in Guangdong province. This move gained New Zealand some goodwill from China.

From 1934 the Chinese poll tax was waived, and in 1944 it was formally abolished.

New Zealanders in China 1937–45

In 1938 New Zealand writer Iris Wilkinson, better known by her pen name Robin Hyde, travelled through the war zones of China. There she met fellow New Zealanders James Bertram, a freelance war correspondent, and Rewi Alley, who was establishing industrial cooperatives in the interior.

New Zealanders also provided medical help to the Chinese resistance. Despite being a missionary and a pacifist, the nurse Kathleen Hall worked with well-known Canadian doctor Norman Bethune in the communist 8th Route army. Golan Maaka, a Hawkes Bay doctor, worked with the nationalist Chinese army in southern China in 1938–39.

War in the Pacific, 1941–45

The Second World War reached the Pacific in 1941. Japan’s sinking of the Royal Navy ships Prince of Wales and Repulse, followed by its conquest of Singapore, the major British military base in the Far East, provided stark evidence of Britain’s inability to defend its former colonies.

New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser made the difficult decision to keep the Second New Zealand Division in the Mediterranean theatre, rather than emulate the Australian government and recall it. Instead, American troops were stationed in New Zealand before going to fight in the Pacific.

The Third New Zealand Division, created in 1942, fought in the Solomon Islands in 1943–44. Units of the Royal New Zealand Navy and Royal New Zealand Air Force also fought the Japanese in the South Pacific.

Jayforce and the occupation of Japan

After the war ended, around 12,000 New Zealand troops and airmen served in Japan with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force between February 1946 and early 1949. It was the first large-scale military involvement of New Zealanders in an Asian country.

The New Zealanders, usually referred to as ‘Jayforce’, were based in the rural Yamaguchi and Shimane prefectures on the southern tip of Honshu. Initially socialising with the Japanese was forbidden, but friendly contact developed over time. Some Jayforce veterans returned to New Zealand with a new appreciation of Japanese culture at a time when most New Zealanders had a very negative attitude towards Japan.

New Zealand and the ‘new Commonwealth’

In the immediate post-war era, the British Empire continued to be the key influence on New Zealand’s Asian policies. India became a republic in 1947, without the king as the head of state and with a president instead of a governor-general. This raised questions about the future of the Commonwealth.

New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser was involved in negotiations to keep India in the Commonwealth despite its new status as a republic. He helped persuade India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that Commonwealth membership would not limit India’s independence. Nehru remained committed to India’s neutrality and republicanism, despite Fraser’s concerns that these positions might undermine collective security and a sense of shared identity.

India’s stand provided the foundation for a more equal, multicultural and multilateral ‘new Commonwealth’. The pattern was set for other former British colonies that became republics, and Fraser welcomed the admission to the Commonwealth of India, Pakistan and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

New Zealand in Malaysia

New Zealand and Australia sent forces to help the British fight a communist insurgency in the Malayan ‘Emergency’ of 1948 to 1960. From 1964 to 1966 New Zealand troops fought against Indonesian insurgents during the Indonesian–Malayan ‘Confrontation’.

This positioning of New Zealand forces in South-East Asia became known as a strategy of ‘forward defence’ – engaging the opponent as far away from one’s own territory as possible. In 1971 Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom formalised their defence obligations to Singapore and Malaysia with the signing of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), an agreement that was still in force in the 2020.

How to cite this page:

David Capie, 'Asia and New Zealand - War, empire and the new Commonwealth', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by David Capie, published 20 Jun 2012