During the 1950s the focus of New Zealand’s defence strategy shifted from the Middle East to Asia. The Second World War had left this region in a state of flux. Japan’s wartime occupation of European and United States colonies in Asia had weakened colonial control and fuelled emerging nationalism in areas such as French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia), Malaya (Malaysia), the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), and the Philippines. After the war, this nationalist fervour combined with socialist and communist ideology to resist the re-establishment of former colonial powers such as Britain, France, and the Netherlands.
Following the communist victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949, observers in the West became concerned that other Asian countries would embrace communism. When communist forces ousted the French from Vietnam in 1954 these fears seemed to be confirmed. The United States believed that events in Vietnam were the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ and called upon its partners in the region to stand up to the communists.
New Zealand responded by signing the Manila Pact in September 1954. This led to the establishment of the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), a defence pact designed to counter further communist activity in the region. Although New Zealand joined this grouping, it put more effort into the Colombo Plan, which sought to combat the spread of communism by improving living standards in Asian countries.
In April 1954, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to the Domino Theory to describe growing concern over communist influence in Indochina (present-day Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam). Eisenhower argued that if the communists were not stopped, nearby Burma, Thailand and Indonesia would fall like dominoes. With a strategic advantage, the communists would then be able to target Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand.
Despite the New Zealand government’s preference for non-military action, it agreed to send armed forces to Singapore and Malaya in 1955 as part of the British Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve. These deployments were part of a major shift in New Zealand’s defence strategy – ‘forward defence’ in Asia became the focus as New Zealand tried to keep communism as far away from its shores as possible.
In Malaya, New Zealand armed forces helped defeat a communist guerilla campaign during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960). A small military detachment was also sent to Thailand in 1962 as part of the SEATO response to a communist insurgency in nearby Laos. During the Confrontation between Indonesia and the newly-formed Federation of Malaysia (1963-1966), New Zealand troops took part in counter-insurgency operations against Indonesian forces in Malaysia and Borneo. This conflict ended in 1966, but New Zealand maintained a military presence in Singapore until 1989.
In 1965 New Zealand was reluctantly drawn into a protracted, controversial, and ultimately unsuccessful war to stop a communist takeover of South Vietnam. Tensions in Vietnam had been bubbling away since the division of the country in 1954. Intent on reunifying Vietnam under its rule, North Vietnam (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) supported a campaign by communist insurgents, the Viet Cong, to undermine the South Vietnamese (Republic of Vietnam) government. When it looked as if the southern regime might fall, the United States decided to intervene to help its ally.
Under pressure to support its ANZUS partners, New Zealand agreed to send a small combat force to Vietnam. This stayed until 1971, when New Zealand followed the lead of the United States by beginning to disengage from Vietnam and improving relations with the Soviet Union and China (which had been in conflict with each other since the late 1960s). The New Zealand government formally recognised the communist People’s Republic of China in 1972 and reopened its mission in Moscow two years later.