Story: Foreign policy and diplomatic representation

Page 5. Alliance diplomacy, 1950s to 1970s

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Security concerns in Asia

Post-war New Zealand governments placed emphasis on collective security through the UN, but also felt a need for stronger bilateral security arrangements. The experience of the Japanese threat during the Second World War, the onset of the Cold War and the communist victory in China heightened interest in formal security ties with the US. Threats to New Zealand were thought most likely to arise in Asia, where only the US could deploy countervailing power. The sudden outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and New Zealand’s participation in the US-led UN force there, reinforced this perception.


The US was at first reluctant to offer a security commitment to New Zealand but this attitude faded as developments in Asia threatened US interests, especially those in Japan. In 1951 Australia, New Zealand and the US signed the ANZUS treaty, which contained a commitment to common action against armed attack on any of the signatories in the Pacific area. A council of ministers met periodically to discuss security issues in the region. Britain, whose territories in Asia were excluded from the ambit of ANZUS, was unhappy, but New Zealand went ahead nonetheless.

Manila Treaty and SEATO

In 1954 New Zealand joined the US, the UK, Australia, France and three Asian powers – Thailand, the Philippines and Pakistan – in signing the Manila Treaty. Like ANZUS, this made a general commitment to collective security in South-East Asia. The UK’s membership reassured New Zealand. A South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was established in Bangkok; its mandate included military planning. SEATO’s directions were set by regular meetings of a ministerial council. Non-communist South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were not members of SEATO but were the focus of much of its planning.

Pointing the finger

From the 1950s New Zealand’s foreign policy in South-East Asia was based in part on fears of a military threat from that part of the world. Minister of Defence Dean Eyre told Parliament in 1964, ‘It is a very sobering exercise to take up a globe of the world and to look at South East Asia, perhaps from the Chinese Communist point of view, and to see that the Malay Peninsula points like a finger in our direction with Indonesia and Australia as convenient stepping stones along the way.’1

Diplomatic posts in Asia

In 1955 New Zealand and the UK agreed that in the event of war New Zealand’s deployment should be in South-East Asia rather than (as previously) the Middle East. New Zealand contributed forces to a Commonwealth Strategic Reserve based in Malaya and Singapore, at that time both British territories. Accordingly, a New Zealand commissioner was appointed to Singapore. The commissioner managed relations with the two governments, consulted the British command on security and defence matters, and represented New Zealand on the SEATO council. In 1956 an embassy was opened in Thailand to strengthen participation in SEATO. In 1958, after Malaya’s independence, a high commission was established in Kuala Lumpur. The post in Singapore also became a high commission when that country became independent in 1965.

By 1967 New Zealand also had posts in India, Indonesia, Hong Kong and South Vietnam, performing a range of political, security, economic, aid and consular functions.

Vietnam War and ASEAN

The mission in South Vietnam was a product of New Zealand’s involvement in the US-led war against communist North Vietnam, and was closed in dramatic circumstances when the North Vietnamese were victorious in the south in 1975.

Economic opportunities partly explained new posts in South-East Asia, but the primary justification for opening posts in the Philippines (in 1975) and Vietnam (1995) was to assist in promoting a more effective partnership with an expanding Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Set up in 1967, this was originally an association of non-communist nations, but communist Vietnam joined in 1995 and Laos became a member in 1997.

  1. New Zealand Parliamentary debates, 27 August 1964, vol. 339, p. 1652. Back
How to cite this page:

Michael Green, 'Foreign policy and diplomatic representation - Alliance diplomacy, 1950s to 1970s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

Story by Michael Green, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 May 2016