New Zealand is one of UK’s most important partners.
The two nations have fought side by side through many conflicts, especially the World Wars. Following, a long ‘withdrawal’ from East of Suez, the UK is looking towards a ‘global’ role that includes a more active position in the Indo-Pacific and New Zealand can became a central partner for this policy.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by J. Vitor Tossini. Vitor is a student of International Relations at the Sao Paulo State University. He also explores British imperial and military history and its legacies to the modern world.
Britain’s long-standing relationship with New Zealand goes back to the second half of the eighteenth century when the first British explorer reached the islands. Although not the first European to sight New Zealand – the first being the Dutchman Abel Tasman -, Captain James Cook was the first to circumnavigate and map the territory in 1769. However, Cook’s introduction of New Zealand into the cartography maps did not lead to an immediate influx of British settlers.
Between 1769 and 1835 the European population was negligible. This scenario would change when Edward Gibbon Wakefield, envisaging a new ‘British society’ in the southern hemisphere, became director of the reformed New Zealand Company initiating the systematic colonisation of the new land.
The years from 1840 to 1850 witnessed a significant increase in the British population and the consolidation of the first settlements established by the Company, including Wellington, New Plymouth and Nelson. Despite that, the Company’s objective of acquiring the greatest possible amount of land at the lowest price led to a confrontation with the Colonial Office, Missionaries and colonial governors. The New Zealand Company was criticised by its questionable land purchases from the Māori, the indigenous people of the territory, and selling land that was not granted to the Company by the local chiefs.
In 1840, the British Government and Māori chiefs (rangatira) of the North Island signed the Treaty of Waitangi, a landmark of New Zealand’s history. The Treaty was elaborated to establish a British Governor of New Zealand, effectively creating a British colony, recognising Māori ownership of their lands and properties and giving Māori the rights of British subjects. Nevertheless, the bilingual nature of the text occulted differences in meaning, especially concerning the sovereignty powers ceded to the British Crown by the local chiefs. Disagreements would lead to the ‘New Zealand Wars’ or ‘Land Wars’ and other conflicts lasting until 1872.
Following a proclamation of sovereignty over the territory in early 1840, New Zealand was administered from Australia, as part of the Colony of New South Wales. In the next year, following a transitional settlement, New Zealand became a separate Crown Colony. As the population of the colony grew, the demands for representative government quickly occupied the political agenda. Self-government was initially granted in 1846 by the British Parliament through the ‘New Zealand Constitution Act 1846’. However, it was not implemented mainly due to the opposition of the new Governor, Sir George Grey. The Governor persuaded London to postpone its introduction on the basis that the settlers would not protect the interests of the Māori, which constituted the majority of the population. The second Act of Parliament was approved in 1852 and remained in force until 1986 when the Constitution Act 1986 repealed it. Officially titled as ‘An Act to Grant a Representative Constitution to the Colony of New Zealand’, the Act of 1852 created the bicameral General Assembly, with an elected House of Representatives and a Legislative Council. Responsible government was effectively implemented during the Second New Zealand Parliament in 1855.
The Colony of New Zealand existed until September 1907. Following requests from the New Zealand Government and conversations at the 1907 Imperial Conference, Britain declared the country as a ‘Dominion’ equal in status to Canada and Australia. Considering that the country had a long self-governing tradition, the functional changes were mostly symbolic. This move also ended hopes of New Zealand joining the Commonwealth of Australia as some desired when representatives of the country participated in the 1891 National Australia Convention to discuss a proposed federation.
British and New Zealander forces fought alongside each other since the years of New Zealand as Crown Colony. One of the earliest contributions of New Zealand appeared when the Second Boer War seemed imminent. On 28th September 1899, Prime Minister Richard Seddon asked Parliament (technically known as the General Assembly) to approve an offer to the imperial government of military personnel. A contingent of mounted rifles was sent to fight alongside British troops, becoming the first colony to send forces to the Boer War. At the end of hostilities, New Zealand had funded ten contingents of volunteers, a force of nearly 6,500 troops. The war was generally greeted with enthusiasm, and national pride that could be seen in the successful public financing of the three regiments sent to South Africa.
Moreover, New Zealand participation and support during the Boer War was part of a greater national strategy. New Zealand’s security and defence relied on the British Empire and the Royal Navy. As noted by PM Richard Seddon, a strong Empire was vital to the colony’s security. Similarly to what was thought in Australia, the role of Britain and its navy in defending the Empire required eventual contributions by its colonies and dominions. The ‘imperial strategy’ would remain part of New Zealand’s (and Australia’s) security policy until the 1940s when a series of setbacks exposed Britain’s imperial possessions in the Indo-Pacific area to an eager Japanese Empire.
Within less than two decades after the end of the Second Boer War, New Zealand would contribute to the imperial war effort in the Great War. However, designed for the defence of the home islands, the Territorial Army of the Dominion could not be sent overseas. The New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) was formed in 1914 – initially as a volunteer force consisting of 8,500 troops – and deployed to Egypt alongside the Australian Imperial Force. By November 1918, more than 120,000 men – almost half of the eligible male population – had served with the NZEF. Of this force, around 100,000 served overseas. The Māori contributed with more than 2,200 men.
New Zealand’s participation in the Great War is mainly remembered by the military campaign in the Middle East against the Ottoman Empire. When the Gallipoli Campaign began, the NZEF’s contingent was not enough to complete a division; this led to it being combined with the Australian 4th Infantry Brigade to form the New Zealand and Australian Division. This new formation, alongside the Australian 1st Division, formed the well-known Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). Gallipoli was the first significant military engagement experienced by the young nation. Both countries remember the sacrifice of New Zealander and Australian soldiers during the annual ANZAC Day.
Beyond Gallipoli, the New Zealand forces fought in Egypt against a Senussi Invasion from Libya, in the Palestine Campaign that led to the defeat of the Ottoman Army and the fall of Jerusalem, in the Western Front including the Battle of Messines (June 1917) and the Third Battle of Ypres (July-November 1917) and several actions in the Pacific. Roughly 18,500 New Zealanders died, and 41,000 were wounded during the conflict. The Dominion’s contribution was expressive, almost 10% of its total population fought in the war and its casualties were proportionally high, around 1 out of 6 of those who served were killed on active service; Britain stands with 1 out of 8. The impact of the war in the formation of national identity is seen as an essential chapter in the history of New Zealand.
In the interwar years, the country would sign the Treaty of Versailles and join the League of Nation. As a result of the pursue of relatively independent foreign policy, during the Imperial Conferences of 1923 and 1926, it was decided that New Zealand would be allowed to negotiate international commercial treaties. The Statute of Westminster of 1931 granted legislative independence for the self-governing Dominions, removing almost all the authority of the British Parliament to legislate on their behalf. In effect, the Statute of Westminster would contribute to turning New Zealand into a sovereign nation. However, the country delayed the adoption and only approved the Statute in 1947. The remaining British power to legislate in New Zealand ended with the Constitution Act of 1986.
On 3rd September 1939, after twenty years of crisis, the state of war between Britain and Germany came into existence. Differently from 1914 when New Zealand automatically entered the war, the constitutional changes of the previous decades required a separate declaration of war. As New Zealand’s security depended on Britain, the Dominion quickly followed the British decision and an official declaration of war was issued. The ‘2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force’ (2NZEF) was assembled, and the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Navy received New Zealand’s personnel for service. Around 140,000 personnel served overseas, 104,000 in the 2NZEF and the remaining in the British and New Zealander air and naval forces. An additional 100,000 men were under the banner of the country’s Home Guard. In all, roughly 67% of the male population between ages eighteen and forty-five served in the military during the Second World War.
The New Zealander forces sent to Europe and Egypt served notably as part of the British Eighth Army. In 1941, these forces saw action in the Battle of Greece and the subsequent Battle of Crete and Operation Crusader. In the following years, they fought in the First and Second Battles of El Alamein, in Libya, in Tunisia and Italy (at the Battle of Monte Cassino, reaching the Gothic Line in May 1944 and finally participating in the Operation Grapeshot; the ‘spring 1945 offensive’). In the Pacific theatre, the 2NZEF’s Pacific Section was responsible for the defence of Fiji until the United States took over the protection of the islands. Later, the Pacific Section was renamed ‘3rd Division’ seeing action during the Solomon Islands Campaign (1943-1944), especially in the battles of Vella Lavella, Treasury Islands and Green Islands.
The years after the end of the Second World War were characterised by the loosening of ties between Britain and its former Dominions. The collapse of Britain’s strategic position in the Far East in February 1942 with the Fall of Singapore, raised fears that New Zealand and Australia were exposed to Japan’s ambitions. However, years later, New Zealand would fight alongside Britain in the Malayan emergency, signalling that the relationship was still relevant although relatively weakened. Eventually, the Government of New Zealand sought to find a new friendly power in the region to replace Britain as the cornerstone of its strategic security. This aim was achieved by the formation of the ANZUS alliance in 1951.
Originally, the ‘Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty’ (ANZUS) was a collective security agreement between the three countries. Conceived during the first years of the Cold War, the ANZUS Treaty was part of a series of security agreements formed by the United States as a response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union and communism. The Treaty states that ‘the Parties will consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific’. The members are also committed to develop collective responses to resist attacks. New Zealand was partially suspended in 1986 due to a nuclear-free zone policy covering its territorial waters. Since 1986, the Treaty works between Australia and New Zealand and, separately, between Australia and the United States.
The British strategic disengagement from regions’ East of Suez’ during the decades of the 1960s and 1970s contributed to diminishing its role in the Indo-Pacific region further. Furthermore, Britain’s capabilities to provide support for its allies in the region declined as its Armed Forces passed through several defence reductions and its military installations were closed down throughout the world. Consequently, the UK’s relevance to New Zealander foreign policy declined sharply. The British Government decision to join the European Economic Community in 1973 contributed to decreasing the bilateral relations and economic links further.
However, as happened with the Anglo-Australian relations, defence co-operation between the two countries never ceased and is gaining a new interest in both London and Wellington. The UK and New Zealand are partners through the Five Power Defence Arrangements (Britain’s long-lasting defence commitment with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia) and the Five Eyes (the world’s most complex intelligence alliance, also including Australia, Canada and the United States). Since 2006, the country has adopted full membership of the ABCANZ Armies (officially known as “American, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Armies’ Program”), aimed at improving interoperability and standardisation equipment and training between the members’ military forces.
Moreover, Britain and New Zealand have common values and interests, and co-operation at all levels of government. The two nations share close political links as both are constitutional parliamentary monarchies, independently sharing the same Head of State. As Queen Elizabeth II is the monarch of other 15 Commonwealth realms, Her Majesty on the advice of the New Zealand Prime Minister appoints a ‘Governor-General of New Zealand’ to carry out her ceremonial and constitutional duties in the country.
Concerning the economic relationship, the bilateral trade was marked by the British decision to join the European Economic Community. This movement affected Britain’s trade links to New Zealand and other former British dominions. In the early 1970s, the British share of New Zealand’s exports amounted more than 40%, thirty years later it was roughly 6%. It is worth noting that this decline was also part of the new reality of the years following the Second World War: British economic power was severely diminished, its industries were less competitive, and New Zealand was looking for new economic and political partners. So, the 1973 decision appears as one of many factors – although an important one – that contributed to the loosening of the economic ties between London and Wellington.
Despite that, the UK remains New Zealand’s main export destination in Europe, the sixth-largest destination of its exports and the only European country to appear in its top ten trade partners by exports. According to the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade: ‘The UK is our fifth-largest trading partner, with two-way trade worth almost NZ$6 billion’. Concerning bilateral foreign investment, the UK is the third-largest investor in the country after the United States and Australia. Since early 2017, British and New Zealander officials have met regularly the discuss ways to ensure continuity and stability in the existing arrangements underpinning their bilateral trade following Britain’s exit from the European Union. Both countries have committed to launching negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement as soon as Britain is in a position to negotiate independently.
In the 2016 Defence White Paper, the New Zealand Government states the “the United Kingdom will remain one of New Zealand’s closest and most enduring defence and security partnerships. Both countries share similar perspectives on a range of security challenges and maintain close practical engagement”. Moreover, the country reaffirmed its commitment to the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) highlighting its importance to regional security and relations with Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and Britain. Wellington also notes the joint operations in Afghanistan and Iraq as symbols of recent and successful co-operation with London.
Lastly, the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) has a long and shared history of co-operation with the British Armed Forces. Once part of the British imperial apparatus, the NZDF has become an independent and highly trained regional force. Throughout the twentieth century, several vessels of the Royal New Zealand Navy were built or designed in Britain. Within this context, in July 2019, reports emerged about New Zealand eyeing the British Type 26 Frigate as a substitute for the current Anzac-class. If the design is chosen, a further and significant field for co-operation will open, and all the denominated ‘CANZUK countries’ (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) would possess similar frigate designs. Concerning the other military branches, the New Zealand Army shares military traditions and organisation with the British Army, and part of its equipment, especially the artillery, is of British origin. The Air Force also has a long tradition in operating British aircraft, including the BAC 167 Strikemaster, De Havilland Vampire, Bristol Type 170, Short S.25 Sunderland and Westland Wasp helicopters.
Therefore, the UK and New Zealand share a close and long-standing relationship that was tested in two world wars and cemented by mutual respect and shared values. In spite of the British disengagement from the Indo-Pacific, the friendly relationship with New Zealand survived, and as the twenty-first security unfolds, their special relationship shows that when possible, it successfully adapted to changes. Currently, co-operation covers the fields of science and technology, environment, education, promotion of human rights, development, and defence and security. As mentioned, the economic relations between the UK and New Zealand are significant, and a free-trade agreement has strong support in both nations. Furthermore, a reciprocal ‘free trade and movement of people’ with the UK and the CANZUK countries is supported by more than 80% of New Zealand’s population. This wide support shows that the UK-New Zealand relationship has the potential to further improvements in the next decades.
Similarly to Australia’s expectations, New Zealand is looking and expecting that Britain will increase its presence in the region soon as the British Government is looking once again to expand its presence in the Indo-Pacific area. Considering the geopolitical changes in the region, including the tension in the South China Sea, New Zealand can become one of Britain’s most important allies in safeguarding British interests and regional stability. For New Zealand, an active British military presence could act as a relevant part of its defence strategy.
Therefore, if the British Government is embarking on a truly ‘global’ policy, seeking the consolidation of the UK as an important and wealthy ‘trading nation’, it ought to understand that it requires – among other things – the reaffirmation of old partnerships and the willingness to expand its economic and military commitments around the world. Beyond that, a ‘British Pivot’ to the Indo-Pacific will be incomplete without having a special relationship with New Zealand.