Racial attitudes in the United States ensured that prior to World War II, Asian populations would have little political leverage and would play only a marginal role in determining foreign policy in Asia and the Pacific region. With dramatically increased population and economic affluence, since the 1970s Asian Americans have built the political structure that has allowed them to participate in the process of influencing American foreign policy. It is still more the promise of what the future holds in this arena for Asian Americans than their current ability to shape policy that should be noted.
Chinese were the first Asians to immigrate to the United States in significant numbers: by 1880, with their community numbering seventy-five thousand, they comprised 10 percent of California's population. Fear that Chinese Americans might use the vote was one reason behind congressional passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Among the provisions was one that made Chinese "aliens ineligible to citizenship." With this legislation Chinese Americans were banished to the political margins, and a significant precedent was set for the political and social marginalization of all Asian groups who would follow. Only in 1952 were the last of the legal restrictions against Asian citizenship removed.
During World War II the United States lifted the ban on Chinese immigration; in the first year of implementation (1943) the change was as much symbolic as substantive as only 105 persons were allowed to enter the United States. Chinese immigrants were allowed to become naturalized citizens. Since China was an ally of the United States during World War II, these moves were made in large measure to win favor with Chiang Kai-shek's regime. Chinese Americans were too few in number and too politically inexperienced to be of much influence in promoting such changes. After the war Asian Americans remained politically marginalized in foreign policy decisions. No Asian-American group or individual, for instance, proved influential in shaping the events and policies that brought America into the Korean War.
Koreans in America were too few in number, and they had little experience with American politics. The condescension shown by many U.S. government officials toward both the Korean and the Chinese Communist combatants in the war smacks of racist mentality; these leaders were unlikely to have taken seriously those Asian Americans who would have tried to influence policy. White American soldiers commonly disparaged both the Chinese and the Koreans (including their South Korean allies) with racial barbs. The same pattern prevailed in the growing involvement of the United States in Southeast Asia that began in the 1950s. No Asian-American ethnic groups, nor individual Asian Americans, had any meaningful role in the policies that led to the war in Vietnam.
Several factors changed for Asian Americans beginning in the 1970s. Driven by a surge of immigration from Asia as the result of the 1965 immigration law, Asian Americans command attention by their sheer numbers—10,242,998 (3.6 percent of the nation's population, according to the 2000 census). They are well situated politically because in California, the greatest electoral prize by far, between 11 and 12 percent of the population is Asian American. These ethnic groups collectively can boast exceptionally high levels of educational attainment. Education is a primary reason for another political strength shared by Asian Americans, their affluence. Median family income for Asian Americans is 138 percent of the national average.
Obstacles continue to block the path of these groups as they attempt to achieve a level of political sophistication and develop the capability to influence foreign policy toward their ancestral homes in Asia. The population numbers themselves may be misleading when the level of political participation is considered. Because so many of the immigrants allowed in by the 1965 law are part of reunited families, the rate of immigrants who become naturalized is low. The percentage of Asian Americans who register to vote is low, as is the percentage of those who actually vote. If some other ethnic groups have attracted political attention because of their community solidarity and bloc voting tradition, it remains a liability for Asian Americans that they evenly split their votes between Republicans and Democrats. Split votes inevitably remove political leverage. Certain groups also split on the issues involving their land of ancestry. Chinese Americans, for instance, divide over the central issue of what policy should be promoted by the United States toward the communist regime in Beijing.
An "80–20 initiative" was begun in the 1990s with the goal of delivering 80 percent of the Asian-American vote to one presidential candidate. However, there are six significant Asian groups represented, and the ideological differences among them make the kind of political solidarity that the "80–20 initiative" promotes unlikely. Chinese Americans are the largest ethnic group, with nearly 2.5 million, followed in order by Filipinos, Indians, Vietnamese, Koreans, and Japanese. Each has its own particular foreign policy issues that relate to the homeland, so collaboration among the groups has proved to be difficult.
The Vietnamese, politically the most conservative group, have focused on U.S. policy toward the government in Hanoi. As opponents of the regime, Vietnamese Americans have acted as somewhat of a brake on the inexorable American move toward normalizing relations. With a huge influx of immigrants within their community, Chinese Americans have focused on both immigration issues and the U.S. relationship with China. Dubious charges of espionage against Lee Wen Ho, a Chinese-American nuclear scientist at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 2000 mobilized Chinese Americans to protest that the American government perpetuated the stereotype that Chinese Americans were somehow doing the bidding of the government of China. Because China is seen as the enemy by many Americans, Chinese Americans believe they are tainted by association because they are ethnic Chinese. In a fund-raising scandal in the 1996 election, millions of dollars were illegally collected from Chinese sources outside the United States; Chinese Americans protested that press coverage did not adequately explain that it was not Chinese Americans engaged in raising illegal contributions, but foreign Chinese who may well have been associated with the communist Chinese government. Chinese Americans believe that their ability to influence policy has been compromised by these episodes in which they have been unfairly accused of wrongdoing and of being in the service of a foreign nation disliked by the American public.
Each of the Asian groups wants to bring more Asian Americans into the foreign policy decision-making process involving Asia and the Pacific region. With so many different cultures involved, finding a consensus has not been easy for the Asian-American groups.