Looking East

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With a war in Afghanistan and worries over the rise of new superpowers in China and India, Asia seems like a relatively recent U.S. foreign-policy bugaboo. But since World War II, the United States has devoted more and more of its diplomatic and military efforts across the Pacific. The Cold War was fought on Asian soil, economic strategy was designed with Asian tigers in mind, and diplomacy has focused on containing and befriending the inhabitants of the world's biggest continent. The following photographs depict this complicated, contentious, and often lucrative history of a superpower and its Asian allies and foes.

U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur meets with Japanese Emperor Hirohito in Manila, Philippines, in October* 1945, a few weeks after Japan's surrender following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrendered to Allied forces on Sept. 2, 1945, officially ending World War II.

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Japanese children wear masks to protect themselves from radiation in the devastated city of Hiroshima nearly three years after the U.S. atomic bombing. Around 140,000 people, more than half of Hiroshima's population at the time, died in the first atomic bombing on Aug. 6, 1945; another 70,000 perished in Nagasaki three days later. Countless thousands others died in the years following from radiation poisoning.

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The Korean War began in June 1950, following North Korea's invasion of the South. The young United Nations, led by U.S. forces, scrambled to contain the North Korean army. The Cold War, then just a few years old, heated up fast; the United States sided with the South, while China and the Soviet Union supported the North.

A U.S. soldier from the U.N. forces displays a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, found on June 14, 1952, at a North Korean prison camp.

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An undated photo taken in Hamhung, North Korea, shows a U.S. soldier walking among the ruins of the city.

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North Koreans and U.S. officers meet to discuss an armistice in 1951 in Panmunjom, the "truce village" straddling the border between North and South Korea. The 1953 armistice that ended the war was signed there, leading to the eventual deployment of 37,000 U.S. forces to South Korea.


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In 1954, Pakistan and the United States signed a mutual defense agreement that brought Pakistan into the U.S. sphere of influence in the Cold War and allowed U.S. forces to use the country as a base for flights over Soviet territory. Pakistan's strategic importance in the Cold War made it one of Washington's closest allies in Asia during that period. Above, a Pakistani solider mans a position during the India-Pakistan border conflict in May 1965. This war marked the end of U.S. military assistance to Pakistan, when President Lyndon B. Johnson placed an embargo on arms to both Pakistan and India.

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U.S. attention soon shifted from South to Southeast Asia as Vietnam became the latest proxy for the Cold War. Above, U.S. President John F. Kennedy points to a map of Laos during a news conference in Washington, D.C., on March 23, 1961. The communist threat to Laos, he said, is "difficult and potentially dangerous."

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A North Vietnamese tank rolls down a street in Saigon on April 30, 1975, as the city falls into the hands of Communist troops. The fall of the city, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, was the capstone on the catastrophic failure of U.S. policy in Vietnam.

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U.S. President Richard Nixon toasts with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in February 1972 in Beijing during Nixon's official visit to China. The trip, the first by a U.S. president in office, ended 25 years of isolation between the United States and China and eventually resulted in the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries seven years later.

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U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger meets with Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong in Beijing on Nov. 24, 1973. During the meeting, Mao proposed sending 10 million Chinese women to the United States, in hopes of kick-starting trade between the two countries, documents released in 2008 revealed.

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U.S. first lady Betty Ford dances with a teacher at a Beijing dance school on Dec. 3, 1975. She joined President Gerald Ford on a five-day trip to China.

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Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping hug in Beijing on June 29, 1987. During Carter's presidency, the two leaders signed three agreements cementing U.S.-China cooperation in science and technology, culture, and consular affairs.

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Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang and U.S. President Ronald Reagan walk arm-in-arm after a meeting at the White House on Oct. 1, 1984. That same year, Reagan was the first U.S. president to visit China since Nixon's historic 1972 trip. During a banquet in honor of his visit, Reagan spoke of the need for "mutual respect and benefit" between China and the United States.

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In 1979, the CIA began Operation Cyclone, a clandestine program to arm, train, and finance the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The program was long and costly, lasting until 1987 and peaking at a cost of $630 million per year. Twenty years later, the United States found itself fighting many of the same groups it supported during Operation Cyclone.

Above, mujahideen of the Harakat-e Islami party gather around debris of a helicopter they had shot down with a Stinger missile in Maidan Wardak province in June 1987.

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In 1979, Ezra Vogel's book, Japan as Number One, heralded a new economic superpower, ushering in a wave of paranoia in the United States about Japan's trade policies and manufacturing might. Ronald Reagan's tenure as president saw some of these fears come true, as the United States struggled with a mounting trade deficit with Japan. In November 1983, Reagan became the first U.S. president to address the Japanese Diet, speaking of protectionist impulses in the United States:

It is not easy for elected officials to balance the concerns of constituents with the greater interests of the nation, but that's what our jobs are all about. And we need your help in demonstrating free trade to address concerns of my own people. Americans believe your markets are less open than ours. We need your support to lower further the barriers that still make it difficult for some American products to enter your markets easily.

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Before he was president, George H.W. Bush was once special envoy to China. Above, he and his wife Barbara pose on bicycles in Beijing in 1974.

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The aircraft carrier USS Independence pictured in the Indian Ocean in 1991. In March 1996, the Independence was deployed to the Taiwan Strait as tensions rose after China conducted missile tests off the Taiwan coast. The deployment, ordered by President Bill Clinton in support of Taiwan, was the most conspicuous use of U.S. military power in Asia since the Vietnam War.

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Chinese President Jiang Zemin (center), Foreign Minister Qian Qichen (left), and Jiang's special assistant Zeng Qinghong at a dinner hosted by the Chinese community of Los Angeles on Nov. 2, 1997. Jiang's visit was the first to the United States by a Chinese head of state in 12 years.

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Several thousand people lined the streets around Harvard University in anticipation of Jiang's visit to the campus in Cambridge, Mass., on Nov. 1, 1997, part of his six-city tour to the United States.

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Taliban soldiers beside destroyed houses inside an alleged terrorist camp hit by U.S. missiles in Khost, Afghanistan, on Sept. 4, 1998. The United States launched missile attacks aimed at Osama bin Laden, head of terrorist group al Qaeda, in retaliation for bombings at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 257 people that August.

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Thousands of Chinese march to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on May 9, 1999, protesting NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. The bombing killed three people; NATO officials said that they believed the building was home to a Yugoslav military facility, not the Chinese Embassy.

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U.S. President Bill Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea, visit the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, on March 22, 2000. Clinton was in the country to sign an agreement with India promoting environmental awareness and protecting a forest close to the Taj Mahal.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Il toasts U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a dinner in Pyongyang on Oct. 24, 2000. The visit by Albright was part of a coordinated strategy by the United States, South Korea, and Japan to end the North's isolation and ease tensions in one of the world's most volatile regions.

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On April 1, 2001, a U.S. surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet off the coast of China, leading the American crew to make an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island. The crew was held in China for 11 days, with the entire incident underlining increased tensions in the U.S.-China relationship. Beijing angrily demanded apologies while the United States refused to grant one.

Above, a frame from a U.S. Department of Defense video shows a Chinese fighter jet flying dangerously close to a U.S. surveillance plane on Jan. 24, 2001, near China.

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Anti-Taliban soldiers look at smoke trails left by U.S. bombers on Dec. 12, 2001, in the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan. U.S. airstrikes targeting Osama bin Laden's Tora Bora mountain bases marked the beginning of a decade of war in Afghanistan.

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U.S. President George W. Bush walks alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai upon arrival at Kabul's presidential palace during an unannounced visit on Dec. 15, 2008.

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In October 2008, the U.S. Congress passed the U.S.-India nuclear deal, lifting a 30-year-old moratorium on nuclear trade with India and providing U.S. assistance to India's civilian nuclear energy program. Critics said the deal undermines nonproliferation efforts and could contribute to an Asian nuclear arms race. Above, Indian political activists protest the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Mumbai on Oct. 4, 2008. Rice was in town to discuss the nuclear deal, passed days earlier.

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On Dec. 1, 2009, President Barack Obama ordered an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, tripling the size of forces there, in an effort to "bring this war to a successful conclusion." Above, U.S. soldiers gather near a destroyed vehicle as some of their wounded comrades are airlifted by helicopter to Kandahar Hospital on Aug. 23, 2011.

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During his three years in office, much of Obama's attentions have shifted eastward to China. Obama must balance the pivotal U.S. economic relationship with Beijing with domestic concerns over China's tremendous growth. "We welcome China's rise," Obama said at a White House news conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Jan. 19 of this year. "I absolutely believe that China's peaceful rise is good for the world, and it's good for America.… We just want to make sure that that rise … occurs in a way that reinforces international norms and international rules, and enhances security and peace, as opposed to it being a source of conflict either in the region or around the world."

Above, Obama tours the Great Wall on Nov. 18, 2009, during his maiden trip to the world's most populous country and second-largest economy.

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