We live in an odd time, in which history seems less and less relevant as we shoot toward the future. If you are thinking about studying in America, you may not even consider the history between the United States and your country (and the U.S. has been powerful enough for long enough to have relationships, good and ill, with nearly every country on the planet). And while it is true that the activities of politicians in the past shouldn’t affect your decision or have any impact on your daily life, it is good to know the history of things. Because, as the saying goes, while you may be done with the past, the past is never done with you.

In saying that the past isn’t done with you, I am not just referring to the famous Santayana quote about those who forget the past being condemned to repeat it. Human folly isn’t always mitigated by knowledge. But it is important to understand how countries got where they are, and how relationships between states evolved. It will help prepare you for the future, for your life as a global citizen, and can also help you navigate in a personal manner.

To become a well-rounded global citizen, it’s important to understand the ties between nations.
Image source: wikimedia.org

East Asia- Distant and Close

Today we’re going to look at the U.S. and East Asia. This will be a broad overview, and we clearly won’t hit every country. We also don’t want to lump all countries together. The term “East Asia” is vague, as geographic terms generally are. However, there is a rough idea of what that means- China, Korea, Japan, maybe Singapore, and others, but then you have to question if you should include the Philippines (which sometimes is included), Malaysia (usually), or Indonesia (generally not).

In a way, that confusion, and the tendency to lump very disparate nations and people into one group, is reflective of the problem that has marked U.S. relationships with that part of the world. It would be a lie to say that racism, or at the very least racialism, hasn’t played a role. Racial thinking certainly played a huge part in the Asian experience in America, from the railroads to war internment. A tendency to put all these different people in one ill-labeled group is part and parcel of that.

But even that aspect of it underscores the intimate nature between East Asia and America, particularly the West. Though it isn’t remarked upon much, the West, especially California, saw immigration from Asia very early on. William Vollman, the novelist and journalist, devotes well over 100 pages of his gigantic, brilliant Imperial to the story of Chinese immigrants in Mexicali, on the Mexican/American border. We have an idea of that border, and it is jarring to some to think of a thriving Chinese community there in the late 1800s and turn-of-the-century, and even more jarring to think of it as being there now. But I think this highlights how relations between groups are never simple, and that our history is far more diverse, wild, and unexpected than standard narratives suggest.

A history of violence

Of course, those relations haven’t always helped in terms of foreign policy. The U.S. spent years subduing a violent independence movement in the Philippines in the early 20th-century, after taking its control from Spain. This was one of the first steps in America becoming a dominant power.

Obviously, the most dramatic and largest stage of American involvement was in WWII, when Japan was at war with everyone, including the U.S. (we have previously discussed competing narratives about the war). This was of course a brutal, all-out war marked by intense nationalism and fierce hatred between the combatants. All sides have claims to victimhood- Japan waged devastating, genocidal war across the region, but were also victims of the only nuclear attack in history.

After WWII, America never really stopped fighting in Asia. It went to war against Communism (officially) in both Korea and Vietnam. Korea was largely unremarked upon, then and now, lost in the glow of the post-War boom. Vietnam, of course, was so divisive domestically, and so politically searing for the nation, that the name of the country evokes thoughts of the war and of internal struggle in a way that Korea or Japan never do. We also were so focused inward that little concern was given to the other side of the war, and the damage done to Vietnam.

Pivoting toward an uncertain peace

But relations can be repaired. Japan and South Korea are two of America’s biggest allies in the globe, despite the slowdown on a trade agreement. Taiwan and the U.S. are very strong friends. Economic ties have been the key strengthener, even with Vietnam, with whom the U.S. now has a bilateral trade agreement. War with any of these nations, or Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, etc., is unthinkable. Asia is of a huge importance to America, reflected in President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. His thinking is that the U.S. has more concerns and promise there, and shouldn’t be spending so much time and capital in the Middle East.

Of course, not everything is rosy. There is still the menace of North Korea lingering on the continent, but that has managed to strengthen ties between regional players, as they figure out how to, if not solve, at least manage the constant crisis.

U.S.-China relations are always fraught, but stronger than scary headlines would have you seem. It is very true that there are major issues, and they will be getting subtly stronger as the years go on. And this article didn’t even mention Taiwan, which is a permanent issue for China and the United States. But China and the United States have grown so intertwined economically that these issues will force them to work out. There will, of course, be discord, as major powers try to balance what they can get away with, but both China and the United States have far more to lose from trouble than they do to gain.

The future- you

So what will the future bring? There is a good chance it will bring more peace, more stability, and more harmony. After all, there is far more exchange, starting with you, and your decision to study in America. The U.S. has only had relations with Asia for a little over 200 years, and while that is long on a human life scale, it isn’t long in terms of history. It is amazing to think that after the hideous violence and distrust over the last century, there is so much friendship now. That will continue with the friends you make, the things you learn, and the way you live your life. Knowing the history allows you to break free from it, and make the world anew.


The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.