Journeys to the East: US Presidential Travel to the Asia Pacific throughout History

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by Sarah Wang
President Obama, the first sitting US president to visit Laos, pays his respects at the Wat Xieng Thong Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Image: Official White House Photographer Pete Souza.

September 2-9, 2016 marked President Barack Obama’s 16th and last trip to the Indo-Pacific region as president, including four visits to Afghanistan while in office. During this latest trip President Obama attended his final G-20 Summit in Hangzhou, China where he discussed various economic, security, and environmental issues with other world leaders. On the sidelines of the meeting, President Obama met with Chinese president Xi Jinping to reaffirm the continuing push by their two countries towards greater understanding and cooperation in areas of mutual importance.

Following the conclusion of the G-20 Summit, President Obama traveled to Laos for the East Asia Summit (EAS), becoming the first sitting US president to visit the country. Acknowledging the devastation that Laos endured during covert bombing campaigns conducted by the United States during the Vietnam War, President Obama committed a further $90 million over the next three years to continue the removal of unexploded ordinance remaining in Laos. He also spoke to a delegation from the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) program, which he helped launch in 2013 and now boasts a network of over 100,000 young people from every ASEAN member country.

President Obama has traveled the most to the Indo-Pacific, visiting 15 individual countries.

With the addition of Laos, President Obama has traveled to the most individual Asia Pacific countries of any US president, visiting 15 in all. Compiling data collected by the US Department of State’s Office of the Historian, US presidents have visited 22 individual Asia Pacific countries in total: Japan; South Korea; India; the Philippines; Taiwan; Afghanistan; Pakistan; New Zealand; Australia; Vietnam; Thailand; Malaysia; Indonesia; China; Singapore; Bangladesh; Brunei; Mongolia; Myanmar/Burma; Cambodia; Laos; and Hong Kong . Japan is the most-visited country in the region with 20 individual visits by sitting presidents, followed closely by South Korea with 18, China with 12, the Philippines with 9, and Australia and Indonesia with 8 visits each.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first US president that was recorded as having official travel to Asia. As president-elect he first visited South Korea to tour the Korean War combat zone in 1952. Subsequently, after officially taking office, his trips to India, the Philippines, Taiwan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and South Korea involved meeting with those countries’ leaders and establishing or reaffirming bilateral ties.  Since the Eisenhower administration, every president except for John F. Kennedy has traveled to Asia, and each of those made at least three separate trips to the region.

In addition to state visits and gatherings of regional leaders such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, presidents have also traveled to Asia to visit US military forces stationed in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Afghanistan. Presidents have made addresses to the public, to local government bodies, at universities, and, as President Clinton did in Pakistan, over the radio. US presidents have also attended four state funerals of Asian leaders over the years.

US presidents also used some of these visits to strike agreements and boost ties with the Asia Pacific countries they were visiting. President Nixon famously journeyed to China in February 1972 to meet with Chairman Mao Zedong and begin rapprochement between the United States and China. In 1996 President Clinton and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto signed the Japan-US Joint Declaration on Security to prepare the bilateral relationship for the challenges it would face in the 21st century.

President George W. Bush was especially active in strengthening ties with Asia. In 2006 he reached an unprecedented agreement with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh under which the United States would provide nuclear power assistance to India while allowing it to increase its nuclear weapons program. He also oversaw the dedication of new US embassies in Afghanistan (2006) and China (2008) as well as attending the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

President Obama’s visits to Asia were also filled with historic events. On the 60th anniversary of US-Australia relations in 2011, President Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard expanded the US-Australia military partnership, which would include rotations of US marines through Darwin, Australia. In 2012 he became the first American president to visit Myanmar and helped to usher the opening of Myanmar to the outside world after decades of isolation under the military junta.  Finally, in May 2016 President Obama became the first US president to visit Hiroshima, Japan, the site of the August 6, 1945 atomic bombing by US forces against Japan during World War II, a visit that caused quite a stir in Asia and around the world. 

Sarah Wang is the Event Coordinator and a Project Assistant at the East-West Center in Washington.