Story: Asia and New Zealand

Page 4. The Cold War in Asia

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The Korean War, 1950–53

By the end of the 1940s the world was increasingly divided along Cold-War lines. The Cold War was a period of political and military tension between communist and Western powers that would last for decades. Western countries, including New Zealand, saw the Soviet Union and communist China as part 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 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.


The growing Cold-War tensions and the decline of British power exacerbated New Zealand’s sense of vulnerability. In September 1951 New Zealand joined 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 Organisation (SEATO), an alliance that aimed to contain communist powers 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. It 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, providing training for them in areas of New Zealand expertise.

Vietnam: protest and television

Vietnam was the first war involving New Zealand that generated sizeable and widespread anti-war 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 on a nightly basis.

The Vietnam War

From the late 1950s onwards 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 few New Zealand troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. Kirk showed a greater interest in Asia than his predecessors, travelling to India and Bangladesh and calling for greater 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 and thousands of refugee ‘boat people’ fled. They were followed by 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 the newly independent East Timor in 1975, New Zealand decided not to confront Indonesia, as it was seen as an important regional partner and a bulwark against communism.

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

How to cite this page:

David Capie, 'Asia and New Zealand - The Cold War in Asia', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 September 2019)

Story by David Capie, published 20 Jun 2012