On January 12th, 2016, President Barack Obama made his final State of the Union address to the American people. In it, he covered a range of topics, from the US economy to immigration and healthcare. Foreign affairs also featured in his remarks, from the status of the US’ alliances to ongoing crises in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Asia, too, was featured in President Obama’s remarks, reflecting his emphasis on strengthening US relations with countries in the Asia Pacific region throughout his presidency, and echoing his remarks on Asia in previous State of the Unions. In making such remarks, he is in good company. Since the earliest State of the Unions were delivered to Congress, either as oral remarks or as lengthier written statements, Asia has been on the minds of numerous US presidents.
Using the database of presidential State of the Unions collected by the American Presidency Project, Asia Matters for America analyzed mentions of Asia from all 43 American presidents to determine when and how Asia has mattered throughout US history.
All but nine presidents mentioned Asia at least once in their State of the Union addresses. Of the nine that didn't mention Asia, two presidents, James A. Garfield and William Henry Harrison, did not give any State of the Unions at all, as they died in office before having the opportunity. The first mentions of Asia were by President Andrew Jackson (written in 1831, emphasis added):
To China and the East Indies our commerce continues in its usual extent, and with increased facilities which the credit and capital of our merchants afford by substituting bills for payments in specie. A daring outrage having been committed in those seas by the plunder of one of our merchant-men engaged in the pepper trade at a port in Sumatra [Indonesia], and the piratical perpetrators belonging to tribes in such a state of society that the usual course of proceedings between civilized nations could not be pursued, I forthwith dispatched a frigate with orders to require immediate satisfaction for the injury and indemnity to the sufferers.
Throughout US history, 14 presidents mentioned Asia every year in their annual remarks: Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland (in his first term), Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama. Additionally, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon mentioned Asia every time that they delivered their address as written remarks, though in the addresses that they delivered orally these four presidents only discussed Asia in some of them.
The late 1890s to the early 1910s saw a surge of presidential discussion of Asia, William McKinley (1897-1901), Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), and William Howard Taft (1909-1913) rank 1st, 2nd, and 4th, respectively, in terms of total mentions of Asia. The Philippines, China, and Japan ranked the highest for all three as their presidencies coincided with significant historical events in the Asia Pacific, namely Japan’s rise as a world power following the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), China’s internal shake-up following the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) and the establishment of the Republic of China (1911), and the Spanish-American War (1898) followed immediately by the Philippine-American War (1899-1902).
President Carter, who had both written and oral State of the Unions, mentioned Asia in all of his remarks and discussed the most individual Asian countries (17). He was also the only president to mention the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN), a regional body that had been founded a decade earlier (written in 1980, emphasis added):
The countries comprising ASEAN are central to United States interests in Southeast Asia. Throughout the past year, our relations with ASEAN have continued to expand as our consultative arrangements were strengthened.
China had the most mentions of any specific Asian country across all State of the Unions, nearly twice as many as Japan. Countries that were mentioned the most tended to be countries that were US allies or security partners at the time of the address, or countries where the US was seeking to establish better relations. Unsurprisingly, several countries, such as Japan, Vietnam, China, North and South Korea, the Philippines, and Samoa, featured prominently at different periods over the years because of military conflicts that the US had some role in.
Throughout history, US engagement in Asia has centered on three central themes: trade and investment, politics and security, and education and exchange. The importance of trade with Asia was noted very early on, as President James Buchanan succinctly put it in his 1858 address (emphasis added):
“Our recent treaties with China and Japan will open these rich and populous Empires to our commerce; and the history of the world proves that the nation which has gained possession of the trade with eastern Asia has always become wealthy and powerful.”
With that came the gradual opening of political relations with Asia, from establishing legations in Asia to welcoming delegations of officials from Asia to the United States. President Ulysses S. Grant was the first president to advocate in his State of the Union for educational exchanges between the US and Asia, stating in 1872 that “an appropriation [needed to] be made to support American youths in each of those countries, to serve as part of the official family of our ministers there” and in 1874 that “the importance of having our own citizens, competent and familiar with the language of Japan […] cannot readily be overestimated.” President Grant, recognizing the value of trade and protecting US interests in the Asia Pacific and elsewhere, called for strong support of the US Navy, stating in 1870 that the “Navy is our only means of direct protection to our citizens abroad or for the enforcement of any foreign policy”.
Despite sending troops to China and the Philippines in the wake of unrest in those countries at the end of the 19th Century, the United States did not truly begin to shift from a trade focus in Asia to a security focus until World War II. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated in 1941 that until that point (emphasis added) “no single war… in Asia constituted a real threat against our future.” The US had dispatched security forces to protect American interests abroad but prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941 – just 11 months after Roosevelt’s statement – there was little-to-no concern that conflicts in Asia would directly involve US soil. The subsequent wars in Korea and Vietnam further prompted American leaders to call for a robust military presence in Asia and to maintain strong relationships with allies and partners in the region. In so doing the United States could lend further credence to the ideal expressed by President Harry Truman in 1951 that “Our country has always stood for freedom for the peoples of Asia.” President Jimmy Carter wrote in 1980 that it is has been through “close ties with our allies Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Korea” that the United States has “maintained these interests on the basis of a stable balance of power in the region.”
In his final address, President Obama echoed this sentiment of America’s obligation to ensure security in the Asia Pacific region and thus to also protect America’s interests, stating “when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead – they call us.” In addition, he expressed the need for Congress to work towards approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to “advance American leadership in Asia.” However, despite mentioning Asia in all of his annual addresses, President Obama only just cracked the top 10 list of presidents who have spoken about Asia throughout history. Despite the emphasis that Obama has placed on Asia throughout his presidency, from high profile visits to the “pivot/rebalance” foreign policy strategy, it was not until his final address that Obama surpassed Chester A. Arthur in total number of mentions of Asia. Though President Obama understandably devoted much time across his eight State of the Union addresses to pressing topics such as the economy and Middle East security, that he nonetheless made time to speak about issues in Asia and how they matter to America in every one of his addresses demonstrates how important Asia has been to him.
Sarah Wang is the Event Coordinator and a Project Assistant at the East-West Center in Washington.
Methodology: Mentions of Asia were calculated based off of the following: Explicit mentions of the following countries (both current and historical names, ex. Siam for Thailand):Mongolia, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar/Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Singapore, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Philippines, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Palau, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, and Tonga ; important historical figures from Asia (ex. Deng Xiaoping); cities or place names (ex. Negros island in the Philippines); historical events (ex. Korean War); references to the region (ex. Asia-Pacific, Korean Peninsula); and treaties and/or organizations specific to Asia (ex. ANZUS treaty, Asian Development Bank).