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Asia and New Zealand

by David Capie

New Zealand’s relationships with the numerous, diverse countries of the Asian region have had their ups and downs. From the 1970s New Zealanders grew increasingly determined to forge close, friendly and productive ties with Asia.

Early contacts with Asia

Trade and culture

New Zealand has had important links with Asia since the early decades of European contact. Before it became a British colony, New Zealand was part of the British Empire’s network of trading posts, and connected to Asian ports and trade routes.

The first Indian settlers

Author and traveller John Lidiard Nicholas met a ‘lascar’, an Indian sailor, at the Bay of Islands in 1814. The sailor had jumped ship in 1810, married into Ngāpuhi and adopted their way of life, preferring to stay in New Zealand rather than return to India. In 1813 six lascars jumped ship in Otago Harbour. Three ended up living with Ngāi Tahu and received moko. They reputedly taught Ngāi Tahu to attack ships in the rain (because muskets could not be used if the gunpowder got wet), as well as how to dive and cut ships’ cables.

From the 1790s to the 1820s, tens of thousands of New Zealand sealskins – often used for felt and leather – were exported to Guangzhou (which Europeans knew as Canton), the capital of China’s Guangdong province and the main trading city for South China.

Kauri spars for masts were shipped to India and China, and in 1826 two young Māori rangatira travelled to India on the kauri transport ship St Patrick. They became the ‘toast of Calcutta’.

The trade of commodities and ideas between Britain, China and India influenced New Zealand’s colonial society and culture as it developed. Indian tea, Bengal rum and Chinese porcelain, textiles and furnishings were among popular Asian imports. From 1870 Indian religions and ‘Oriental wisdom’ attracted fascination and debate in religious circles across the British world, including New Zealand.

Language theories

British and German studies in comparative philology (the branch of linguistics that compares languages) suggested that all Indo-European languages originated from ancient Sanskrit. Following on from this it was widely believed, at least until the 1930s, that Māori and British probably shared a north Indian ‘Aryan’ ancestry.

Goldfield migration

From 1866 the goldfields of central Otago and Southland drew Chinese workers, with as many as 5,000 Chinese mining there for gold by the 1880s. Nearly all were from Guangdong province. Some came straight from China; others had been mining in Australia. They also had links with Chinese populations in North and South America and the Pacific Islands.

After the gold rushes many Chinese returned to China, but a considerable number chose to stay. Chinese communities emerged, particularly in Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland. Some established market gardens, laundries and shops selling vegetables and Chinese products.

Very few Chinese men could afford to bring their wives to New Zealand, but some married Māori or Pākehā women.

Asia in Māori newspapers

Māori-language newspapers, published from the mid-19th century, included many articles on Asia. There were detailed accounts of Asian cultures, religions, cities and commerce. They also covered events such as the ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857 and the famines of the 1870s in China and India. In response to reports in Te Wananga, Māori shearers from a range of tribes donated money to help victims of the 1874 Indian famine.

19th-century impressions of Asia

During the 19th century New Zealand’s Pākehā population generally regarded Asians as backward and inferior. Although India was seen as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire, it was considered that only the British had the ability to rule it.

Few Indians migrated to New Zealand before the early 20th century. However, numerous British settlers arrived who had spent time in India or other parts of Asia, usually serving in the army.

Doctors and missionaries travelled to India and China from New Zealand, with women particularly active in missionary work. These travellers’ experiences were often published in newspapers, providing a key source of wider knowledge about Asia.

Early 20th-century fears

Before the 1970s most New Zealanders regarded Asia as an alien region whose large populations threatened to swamp relatively empty Australasia. This fear was reflected in racist immigration laws.

In 1881 New Zealand followed the Australian colonies, Canada and the United States in introducing restrictions on Chinese immigration. Chinese immigrants were forced to pay a poll tax of £10, increased to £100 (equivalent to $20,000 in 2020) in 1896.

Chinese were also subjected to language tests and other restrictions. One law required Chinese residents wanting to return to New Zealand to provide thumbprints for identification purposes. The Chinese consul in Wellington protested that this was degrading and humiliating.

The Russian scares

In 1885 an Anglo-Russian dispute in Afghanistan created one of many ‘Russian scares’ in New Zealand. Premier Robert Stout proposed raising a 1,000-man army for service in Afghanistan, but the crisis was defused before any action was taken. Coastal fortifications were built in several New Zealand cities to defend them against a possible Russian attack. Japan’s victory in the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese war all but vanquished ‘Russophobia’, but increased New Zealanders’ fears about Japan.

Disputes with Britain

Until the Second World War New Zealand was happy to leave most aspects of foreign relations to the British government. This led to disputes over Asian immigration laws.

In 1896 the New Zealand government tried to pass a law extending its Chinese poll tax to all ‘Asiatics’, including Japanese. The British government, which was cultivating closer relations with Japan, instructed the New Zealand governor to withhold royal assent from the bill.

Although Indian nationals – like New Zealanders – were British subjects, New Zealand’s Immigration Restriction Act 1899 placed an obstacle in their way by requiring them to complete an application form in a European language. Laws such as these in New Zealand and other British dominions drew complaints from the British government of India, who worried that protests against discriminatory immigration policies might fuel the growing independence movement there.

In the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1920, New Zealand got around British concerns by removing any mention of race as a criterion for admittance to the country. People of British birth or parentage would be admitted; all others had to apply to the minister of customs for a permit. The act defined Indians and other native ‘Aboriginals’ of British colonies as not of British birth, so they needed permits. Indians and other ‘non-whites’ were routinely turned down without explanation.

Chinese immigrants who were granted permits still had to pay the poll tax. The Chinese consul in Wellington objected in vain to this provision, while the Chinese government protested directly to the British government.

Rugby in Asia, 1936

In 1936 New Zealand Universities became the first New Zealand rugby team to tour Japan. They won seven games, and drew against All Japan. The team also visited Hong Kong, beating the local team 26–0. The standard of Japanese rugby was higher than the visitors expected. They also noted the efficiency of the rail system and the modernity of Tokyo, with its elaborate neon lights. They observed that most Japanese men had adopted western dress, but women still wore the kimono.

The rise of Japan

An Anglo-Japanese alliance was signed in 1902 and lasted until 1923. New Zealanders were ambivalent about it. Britain’s Royal Navy was no longer capable of maintaining a strong presence in the Pacific. Japan’s growing power was shown by its victory over Russia in 1905 and annexation of Korea in 1910.

While New Zealand was happy with the support provided to Allied convoys by the Japanese fleet during the First World War, there was a fear that Japan planned to occupy islands in the South Pacific. Despite these concerns, in 1928 New Zealand signed a trade treaty with Japan. This was the dominion’s first bilateral trade agreement with a country outside the British Empire.

War, empire and the new Commonwealth

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.

The Cold War in Asia

The Korean War, 1950–53

By the end of the 1940s the world was divided along Cold-War lines. The Cold War was a decades-long period of political and military tension between communist and Western powers. Western countries, including New Zealand, saw the Soviet Union and communist China as the spearhead of a growing threat to the ‘free world’.

In June 1950 troops from communist North Korea invaded South Korea, which was allied with the United States. New Zealand responded quickly to a United Nations call for help by dispatching two navy frigates, followed by a field regiment of artillery, known as ‘Kayforce’.

The war lasted for three years. Almost 4,000 New Zealand personnel served and 33 lost their lives while on active service. Kayforce troops witnessed a bleak, impoverished and war-torn Korea. Many, however, formed a positive opinion of Japan, which they visited while on leave.


Growing Cold-War tensions and the decline of British power exacerbated New Zealand’s sense of vulnerability. In September 1951 New Zealand signed the ANZUS treaty, a military alliance with the United States and Australia. New Zealand also signed the 1954 Manila Pact with Australia, France, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, the UK and the US, creating the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), an alliance that aimed to prevent communist expansion in South-East Asia.

The Colombo Plan

New Zealand’s aid to Asia was small in monetary terms. However, one important commitment was to the multilateral Colombo Plan, which New Zealand signed in 1950 along with a number of other Commonwealth countries. This was initially envisaged as a way to fight communism by promoting development and raising living standards in South and South-East Asia.

Through the Colombo Plan, New Zealand forged links with emerging Asian nations and welcomed hundreds of Asian students onto its soil, training them in areas of New Zealand expertise.

Vietnam: protest and television

Vietnam was the first war involving New Zealand that generated sizeable and widespread protests. It was also the first to receive extensive television coverage. Opposition to the war grew as fighting continued with no end in sight. Television brought images of Asia and the sufferings of its people into New Zealand living rooms every night.

The Vietnam War

For two decades from the mid-1950s, the key site for the Cold-War struggle in Asia was Vietnam. The American-backed government of South Vietnam was fighting the North Vietnamese and local communist insurgents. Following major American troop deployment in 1965 the New Zealand government, under Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, announced it would also send combat troops. In all, about 3,000 New Zealanders served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1972, with 37 fatalities.

New interest in Asia

With the election of Norman Kirk’s Labour government in 1972, the last New Zealand troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. Kirk showed greater interest in Asia than his predecessors, travelling to India and Bangladesh and calling for more development assistance for Asia. In 1972 New Zealand formally recognised the communist People’s Republic of China, while cutting ties with their nationalist opponents, the Republic of China government in Taiwan.

Refugees from Asian conflicts

In 1975 the fall of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, ended the Vietnam War. Over the next few years thousands of refugee ‘boat people’ fled South Vietnam, as did Cambodians escaping the genocidal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. New Zealand accepted over 2,000 Vietnamese and over 4,600 Cambodians. Other Asian conflicts have also brought refugees to New Zealand, including small numbers of Sri Lankans in the 1980s and Afghanis in the 2000s.

The continuing Cold War

The Cold War continued to have a major impact on New Zealand policy towards Asia. When Indonesian troops invaded and annexed newly independent East Timor in 1975, New Zealand decided not to confront Indonesia, which was seen as an important regional partner and a bulwark against communism.

In 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia, installing a new government. New Zealand continued to recognise the defeated coalition, which included the Khmer Rouge, rather than the new government supported by communist Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

The rise of Asia

New Zealand looks to Asia

Two shifts took place in the 1970s that fundamentally changed New Zealand’s relations with Asia:

  • The UK’s 1973 decision to join the European Economic Community forced New Zealand to diversify its exports and develop new markets, as it could not rely on contiued exports to the UK. Japan became New Zealand’s third-largest trading partner, although frictions persisted over access to the Japanese market for New Zealand’s agricultural exports.
  • Rapid growth in the economies of the ‘Asian Tigers’ (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong) meant Asia was no longer seen as poor and needy. Rather, it promised potential new markets for New Zealand exports. With the end of the Cold War in 1991, further new markets opened up in China and across South-East Asia.

A pioneer of trade with China

When Victor Percival attended the signing of the New Zealand China Free Trade Agreement in 2008, it was the culmination of over 50 years of work. Percival, a New Zealand businessman, attended his first Canton Trade Fair in 1957, at the height of the Cold War. At that time the New Zealand government actively discouraged trade with communist China. Percival continued to visit China to develop commercial links, even during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. Before his death in July 2010 he was honoured by both New Zealand and China for his work.

China – the new economic power

China began a remarkable rise in economic and political power after embracing economic liberalisation under leader Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. In 2008 New Zealand became the first developed country to conclude a free-trade agreement with China.

In 2018 China overtook Australia to become New Zealand’s largest trading partner. China was also an increasingly important source of foreign investment, students and tourists. In 2018 New Zealand had nearly 450,000 visitors from China, second only to Australia.

India – untapped potential?

In contrast, New Zealand’s diplomatic and trade links to South Asia remained underdeveloped. New Zealanders shared the English language, democratic values, Commonwealth ties and sports such as cricket and hockey with India, but economic links had always been much weaker.

In 1982, the National government even closed the High Commission in New Delhi, deciding the small volume of trade did not justify the cost. It was reopened by Labour Prime Minister David Lange in 1985, with high-profile mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary as high commissioner.

In the early 21st century India’s huge population and growing economy reawakened New Zealand interest.

In 2018 New Zealand had 68,000 visitors from India – fewer than from Canada but more than from Singapore.

Fish for beef

In the late 1970s Prime Minister Robert Muldoon attempted to force Japan to lift its restrictive trade practices and import more New Zealand beef. He threatened to block Japanese access to fishing in New Zealand waters. This intervention was not appreciated by New Zealand diplomats and failed to move the Japanese. A compromise agreement was eventually achieved, but the incident illustrated the limits of New Zealand’s power in negotiating with strong Asian economies.

Pan-Asian institutions

An increasingly important part of New Zealand’s relations with Asia from the mid-1970s was membership of a network of multilateral institutions, sometimes described as ‘regional architecture’.

New Zealand became a dialogue partner to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1976.

In 1989 Australia and Japan launched Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), a grouping with the goal of liberalising regional trade. New Zealand was an enthusiastic supporter. The 1999 APEC Leaders’ Meeting was held in Auckland and, among other things, it thrashed out a response to the crisis in East Timor. This resulted in the deployment of New Zealand troops in the Australian-led International Force for East Timor (INTERFET).

In the 2000s regional cooperation focused on the East Asia region. In 2005 New Zealand ratified the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. In the same year it became a founding member of the East Asia Summit (EAS), a regional grouping dealing with political, economic and security issues. In 2010 a free-trade area was created between New Zealand, Australia and the 10 member countries of ASEAN.

Asia in New Zealand

A push for greater understanding

The growing economic interest in Asia during the 1980s and 1990s spurred efforts to encourage a better understanding of the region. New embassies were opened and funding for Asian-language training for diplomats was doubled. The non-profit organisation Asia 2000, later renamed the Asia New Zealand Foundation, was created.

Asian food

In colonial times Chinese commodity shops and market gardens sold a range of Asian vegetables and other foods to both Chinese and non-Chinese customers. Later, Asian immigrants changed the culinary landscape of New Zealand. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Thai and Malaysian restaurants and takeaway shops joined existing fish-and-chip shops and steak houses. Asian foods and ‘fusion’ dishes became part of the everyday diet of many non-Asian New Zealanders.

In 2006 almost 30,000 New Zealand students were studying Japanese at high school, making it the second most popular language after French. Asia had also become more of a destination for New Zealanders. Many went to teach English as a second language in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan or China. New Zealanders regularly travelled to Asia as tourists; in 2008, 58,900 went to China, 29,900 to Thailand and 27,700 to India.

Asian immigration

Following the Immigration Policy Review of 1986 the informal policy favouring the immigration of white people gave way to an active recruitment of Asian businesspeople. In 1970 just 354 Asians migrated to New Zealand. Between 1986 and 2006 the number of New Zealand residents who had been born in Asia increased from 33,834 to 251,130.

Relationship difficulties

Political relations with Asia were not always easy. Concerns over human rights abuses complicated ties with Indonesia and China. Energetic protest groups sprang up to demand independence for East Timor and Tibet. Politicians constantly referred to Asia’s importance, but much of the public did not feel linked to the region. Asian migrants in New Zealand were the target of racist political attacks. For their part, many Asian governments continued to see Australia and New Zealand as ‘European’ outsiders.

In 2006, 354,552 New Zealand residents identified themselves as being of Asian ethnicity. Two-thirds of these ‘usually lived‘ in the Auckland region, where one in five people was of Asian ethnicity.

Globalisation and regionalisation

At the beginning of the 21st century New Zealand was more closely connected to Asia than at any time in its history. The country was an active participant in a network of regional institutions and had established close bilateral relations with many Asian nations. Seven of the country’s top 10 export markets were in East Asia. Meanwhile, iconic New Zealand brands like Fisher and Paykel and Icebreaker were manufacturing their goods in Asia and exporting them to the world.

New Zealand banks, insurance companies and other service industries increasingly relied on Asian call centres, software and accounting companies.

Finding the earliest Asian links

Many researchers now believe that New Zealand connections with Asia began with the arrival of the Polynesians. Linguistic and genetic evidence indicates that Polynesians share a common ancestor with the indigenous people of Taiwan.

Asian New Zealand

By 2002 the country had 17 Chinese-language newspapers, four radio stations and numerous media websites. Ethnic Chinese, Korean, Indian and Pakistani MPs had been elected to Parliament, and in 2006 Anand Satyanand, a New Zealander of Indo-Fijian descent, became governor-general.

Asian companies are increasingly looking to invest in New Zealand. Sometimes this has been controversial, as in 2011 when a Chinese company sought to buy dairy farms.

Almost 700,000 New Zealanders will be of Asian origin by 2026 – roughly the same as the number of Māori. A new generation of bilingual Asian New Zealanders is growing up, connecting the country to China, India, South Korea, the Philippines, Japan and other parts of the region.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: David Capie, 'Asia and New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

Story by David Capie, published 20 June 2012