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Actually or Potentially Within Reach: The Place of China in New Zealand’s Grand Strategy 1965-1972

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Version 2 2023-09-26, 23:55
Version 1 2021-11-15, 21:09
posted on 2023-09-26, 23:55 authored by Belgrave, David

In 1965 New Zealand was an active member of alliances designed to contain the People’s Republic of China in South East Asia. Late the previous year, the Defence Council had warned Cabinet that New Zealand could be at war with China and/or Indonesia in six months. Less than seven years later New Zealand recognised China, as Britain and the US military presences were exiting from South East Asia. These events bookend a radical reshaping of New Zealand’s defence policies and its attitude towards China.  The existing scholarship on New Zealand’s Cold War defence policies has underemphasised the role of China in New Zealand’s grand strategy and the scholarship on Sino-New Zealand relations has also largely ignored defence policy. This thesis uses recently released files from the Ministry of Defence to provide new insight into the construction of China as a threat during the mid-1960s and the challenges faced in meeting that perceived threat. New Zealand’s Forward Defence policy was one designed to contain China and Beijing-supported revolutionary groups in South East Asia. This strategy was predicated on active British or American support for containment. SEATO and ANZAM provided the basis of New Zealand war planning and day-to-day operations in Asia respectively. With the British decision to withdraw from South East Asia and the American quagmire in Vietnam, New Zealand had to reassess its position in South East Asia as containment of China was no longer thought possible.  The need for a containment strategy was based upon a conceptualisation of China as a growing and hostile power. This view saw China as eventually developing the means to dominate South East Asia and threaten Australasia directly as Japan had done in 1942. This perception of China changed with the emergence of the Cultural Revolution. New Zealand officials watched from Hong Kong as violence and mass political disorder challenged established sources of authority. They took the view that Mao was in direct command of the revolution and was placing limits on it. The revolution destroyed the notion that China was a growing power bent on external expansion. As Mao moved to dampen the revolution, Beijing moved to re-establish its foreign policy and improve its links with the outside world.  Both the means and ends of New Zealand’s grand strategy changed at the same time. New Zealand and its great power allies abandoned the containment project just as views on China shifted. From the end of the 1960s, New Zealand’s Forward Defence efforts ceased to be focused on the containment of China and moved to achieving much more limited goals. New security arrangements were developed to replace the AMDA, ANZAM, and SEATO pacts. The Five Power Defence Arrangements would provide the basis of New Zealand’s defence commitment to South East Asia with only limited assistance from Britain and without China as a significant threat.  It is in this context that New Zealand made the decision to recognise China. New Zealand Prime Minister Keith Holyoake long maintained the view that the PRC should enter the United Nations and be recognised by New Zealand, provided the position of Taiwan was preserved. Once the effort to keep Taiwan in the UN was lost, New Zealand moved slowly toward recognition. However, it would take the election of the Third Labour Government for recognition to occur. This move was part of an international trend towards official relations with Beijing, but for New Zealand, the shift was greater as Wellington had moved from seeing China as a growing military threat to a state with which New Zealand could have an official dialogue.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License


Degree Discipline

International Relations

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Ayson, Robert; Capie, David