Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

A Confrontation Contained

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

A Confrontation Contained

Article excerpt

David McCraw discusses the first major crisis in New Zealand's relations with Indonesia in the 1960s.

The New Zealand government's recent attempt to balance its concern for the East Timorese with its desire not to alienate Indonesia was not the first time that New Zealand has been forced into a balancing act with that country. Thirty-seven years ago, a National government similarly strove to support the people of a friendly Asian country without doing irretrievable damage to New Zealand's relations with Indonesia. In the early 1960s, New Zealand supported the new Federation of Malaysia in the face of Indonesian hostility to its formation. The conflict between Malaysia and Indonesia has passed into history as the Confrontation crisis. In that instance, New Zealand's balancing act was successful, despite its soldiers coming into armed conflict with Indonesian troops. Whether the latest crisis in relations with Indonesia can be as successfully concluded remains to be seen.

The Confrontation crisis had its origins in 1961, when the Prime Minister of Malaya, Tunku Abdul Rahman, proposed the merger of his country with the British colonies of Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo to form a new country to be called Malaysia. The British government eventually agreed to this proposal.

The National government in New Zealand declared itself sympathetic to the concept of Malaysia, in large part because of New Zealand's interest in the future of Singapore and Britain's large military base there. The scheme to create Malaysia provided an ideal solution, as far as New Zealand was concerned, to the vital problem of the decolonisation of Singapore.

New Zealand was interested in the future of Singapore because it wanted British military power retained in South-east Asia, and Britain's continuing military role in Asia depended on its retention of the military and naval base at Singapore. Since communist influence was at that time strong among Singapore's population, there was no guarantee that a future government of an independent Singapore might not order Britain out, or make the security situation so difficult as to render the base untenable. A merger of Singapore with the more conservative Malaya and the Borneo states would put the Singaporean population in a political minority, and thus ensure that the base would remain under the control of reliable friends. The New Zealand government was convinced that the formation of Malaysia was the best practicable solution to the problems of ensuring the security of Singapore.(1)

Regional opposition

In mid-1962 it became clear that there was regional opposition to the proposed new state of Malaysia. Both Indonesia and the Philippines objected to the Borneo colonies joining Malaysia, as they had their own claims to these territories. Early in 1963, Indonesia began a campaign of military harassment of the Borneo colonies as part of a policy of `confronting' Malaysia.

The policy of Confrontation raised the possibility of involving New Zealand in the dispute, because New Zealand was formally associated with Britain's defence agreement with Malaya, and this agreement was going to be extended to cover the Borneo territories. Moreover, New Zealand had had a battalion of troops stationed in Malaya since 1957, and this battalion, along with British and Australian troops, formed the British Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve. In July 1963, the New Zealand government announced that New Zealand would associate itself with the new Anglo-Malaysian Defence Agreement.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations reported in September 1963 that there was no doubt about the wishes of a sizeable majority of the people of Borneo to join Malaysia. Singapore's population had given their consent in a referendum the year before. On 16 September, the Federation of Malaysia came into being. By this time, Britain had been forced to deploy seven battalions of soldiers in Borneo to counter continuing Indonesian attacks. …

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