Swarthmore College Hosts Joint Webinar on Indo-Pacific Politics with the Brookings Institute

On November 9 at 8 p.m. EST, Assistant Professor of Political Science George Yin ’09 sat in Taiwan’s parliament in front of dozens of members of the press to moderate a conversation on the impact of the U.S. presidential election on Sino-U.S. relations and Indo-Pacific politics. The concept of the Indo-Pacific region is relatively new and is increasingly gaining weight with China’s rise and its growing tensions with neighboring countries. Yin collaborated with The Brookings Institution’s China Strategy Initiative to facilitate a discussion made up of leading experts from Brookings, China, India, and Europe, as well as Taiwanese congressman Mark Ho. This moderated discussion was Brookings’ first event on Asia after the recent U.S. presidential election. 

The discussion was a hybrid event, with both Professor Yin and Congressman Ho present at the Taiwanese parliament in front of a live audience made up of the general public as well as 30 members of the Taiwanese press. Meanwhile, the panelists — Rush Doshi, director of The Brookings China Strategy Initiative, Tom Wright, director of the Center for the U.S. and Europe at The Brookings Institution, and Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at The Brookings Institution —  joined in virtually. The discussion streamed as a Zoom webinar, and audience members from around the world, including Swarthmore campus community members and journalists, were able to pose questions over the online platform. 

Yin cited three main reasons for hosting this event with the Brookings Institute: to introduce students to real-world policy analysis, to utilize existing rapport with Brookings, and to build onto Swarthmore’s brand name in Asia. 

“There are a lot of students at Swarthmore who are really interested in public policy, but to be honest, they often don’t have a good idea of what policy analysis is exactly,” Yin said. 

Professor Dominic Tierney’s political science class last semester on national security and foreign policy at the Policy Research Institute inspired Yin to create his own event that allows students to collaborate with a think tank and develop an understanding of policy analysis. Yin has worked with Brookings for some time and has collaborated with them on many occasions, including giving a talk at their institute last year, which provided him with a rapport to reach out for a collaboration.

“Another reason to do this event with Brookings based in Asia is also to strengthen the relationship between Swarthmore and Asia and publicize Swarthmore a little bit more,” said Yin. “Swarthmore is a really good school, and I think particularly during COVID, Swarthmore and other liberal arts colleges really have a comparative advantage in terms of offering a better educational experience [compared to bigger schools that are more well-known in Asia].”

Yin also saw the recent U.S. presidential election results as an opportunity to center the webinar on how President-elect Biden’s administration will affect Indo-Pacific politics. 

“One reason for picking this topic is frankly just because there’s an opening: there’s an event that should be done [on Indo-Pacific politics] but hasn’t been done. As you know, people were very, very anxious about the result of the presidential election and then later, what that [election result] would mean for U.S. policy in the Asia Pacific,” Yin said. 

Additionally, Yin noted that the concept of the Indo-Pacific is relatively new and incredibly important to describe multinational responses to the rise of China. 

“The [newly-formed] ‘quad’ is made up of Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. People wouldn’t really say this publicly, but it’s some kind of new scheme at containment [of China]. But in order to study that, you have to go beyond just thinking about one region, such as East Asia or Southeast Asia. That’s the reason why we have to talk about Indo-Pacific politics,” Yin explained. 

After Yin’s introduction to the webinar and a brief introduction from Brookings fellow Rush Doshi, Congressman Mark Ho extended a warm welcome to all who joined that morning. Ho remarked that this was the first Brookings webinar focused on Asia after the U.S. election and first-ever Brookings event held at Taiwan’s parliament.

“Hopefully, this will be the first of many collaborations,” Ho said.

Reflecting on the current state of the global pandemic and increasing Sino-U.S. competition, Ho echoed Biden’s words in calling the present global moment a time to heal and support one another. Ho called Taiwan, which provided PPE and more than 2 million masks to the U.S., a steadfast ally of the U.S. Ho stressed that Taiwan is a critical player in the Indo-Pacific and that the country has a strong commitment to the return of multilateralism (the process of organizing relations between groups of three or more states). He also expressed his support for adding Taiwan to Democracy-Ten, the proposed expansion of the G-7 which would include South Korea, India, and Australia.

“Today’s event provides an excellent opportunity for us in Taiwan to broaden our horizons and join with you in thinking about what the next few years have in store for the Indo-Pacific,” Ho said in his introductory remarks. 

Ho continued to present his thoughts on Taiwan’s relationship with the US in an era of increased Sino-US competition, as well as Taiwan’s role in the Indo-Pacific. Yin met Ho while doing policy work outside of Swarthmore. According to Yin, Ho enthusiastically agreed to participate in the event as a strong supporter of educational seminars who is highly interested in international politics.

The four Brookings panelists then gave their respective analyses of the current state of Indo-US relations and predicted its future. 

Director of The Brookings China Strategy Initiative Rush Doshi contextualized the recent worsening of Sino-U.S. relations, citing the shrinking power gap and growing intellectual gap between the two nations. 

“No U.S. competitor has ever exceeded 60% of the U.S. GDP,” Doshi said. By some accounts, not even the Soviet Union surpassed this level during the Cold War, but China has surpassed this level, and as the power gap shrinks, we might be approaching a kind of bipolarity. There was also a belief in the U.S. not that China would become a democracy, but maybe that China would become gradually less autocratic, a little bit Leninist, a little bit less oppressive. None of this is happening … We have seen China stress ideological competition with liberal democracies and a willingness to export its model of digital surveillance and authoritarianism.”

While Doshi clearly stated that he does not speak for the incoming administration, he expressed skepticism about whether the Sino-U.S. relationship will improve dramatically under Biden’s administration.

“The main reason [why Sino-U.S. relations won’t improve dramatically in the future] is that the power gap between the U.S. and China is still shrinking, and the ideological gap is still widening,” Doshi said. 

He also pointed out how people in America in all sectors, from congress and the military to the technology industry, are still consistently wary of China’s influence, while people in China are under the impression that the US is in decline. 

Judging from current Sino-US relations, Doshi also predicted that the election results would not hinder the United States’ relationship with Taiwan. 

“I do not think that the U.S. election, as some fear, will reduce U.S. support for Taiwan. In fact, members of both parties in the U.S. congress support Taiwan. They respect the way that Taiwan has responded to both China election interference and the coronavirus pandemic,” Doshi said. 

Director of the India Project at The Brookings Institution Tanvi Madan, reflecting on the current border crisis and COVID-19 concerns, spoke on how China-India relations are at the lowest in decades. Madan emphasized that India’s close alignment with the U.S. is due to India’s concern about China’s recent increase in power.

“The result of this ongoing boundary crisis has been the hardening of views in the Indian government. It has likely weakened the arguments of those within the Indian government who had been calling for India to do more with China, to cooperate more with China, and to do less with countries like the U.S. and its partners. It has also weakened the hands of those in the Indian government that has been arguing for deeper economic ties with China and saying that would help improve political strains between China and India,” Madan said.

 She also predicted that India would receive Biden’s administration optimistically due to the Indian government’s familiarity with him. 

“For the Indian government, President-elect Biden is a familiar face, both from when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he helped shepherd the U.S.-India nuclear deal … and as Vice President, he visited India [and] also hosted a lunch for Prime Minister Modi,” Madan said.

 She added, however, that India’s government will carefully watch the Biden administration’s approach to China, as well as in which areas the U.S. will compete with China.

Director of the Center for the U.S. and Europe at The Brookings Institution Tom Wright observed that Europe played a larger international role in combating the COVID-19 pandemic in the absence of U.S. leadership. Looking forward, Wright expressed his cautious optimism about how a Biden administration could provide strategic certainty to U.S. foreign policy and reaffirm U.S. commitment to multilateralism.  

Philip Hou ’23, one of the students who helped Yin take notes from the webinar, appreciated how the panelists’ different backgrounds and areas of expertise extended US- or China-centric discussions of Sino-US relations.

“I didn’t really have that much background on the Indian perspective [beforehand]. Usually, when people are talking about Sino-US relations, the majority of the time we’re looking at it from the U.S. perspective … or the Chinese perspective, but like this time we got to see the perspective of Europe and India, which we don’t get as much exposure to,” Hou said. 

    After the panelists spoke, Professor Yin opened up the conversation to questions from audience members who joined the webinar both virtually and from Taiwan’s parliament. 

    One of the audience members who asked a question to the panelists was Alan Beltran Lara ’23. Building on his knowledge from Professor Yin’s Introduction to International Politics course, Beltran asked the experts to share their perspectives on the breakdown of multilateralism and the deterioration of the current, liberal world order.  

    “I have a more pessimistic view of geopolitics today, and so it was nice to hear them say that while it has taken a hit, there are lots of different ways to go around it and it is not all doom and gloom, like the Biden administration can find ways to corporate with other countries. It is just a matter of thinking outside of the box,” Beltran said.

    Beltran expressed his gratitude for the panelists’ insights on what he considered an important moment.

    “With the current election, I think this [webinar] was an excellent thing to host because we obviously focus a lot on the domestic side of things and we focus a lot on the outcome of the election itself, but it is important to realize that we are not the only country in the world and there are ramifications for even domestic level events that take place on the global stage,” Beltran said. 

    In addition to the webinar, the Alumni Office also organized an in-person private event for Swarthmore alumni in Taipei. Given that Taiwan has responded incredibly well to the COVID-19 crisis and rebounded to “normalcy” successfully, Yin believed it was a great opportunity to host a private alumni event. Jamie Chang ’86 set up the venue at a restaurant, and around fifteen alumni attended for dinner. After the dinner, Rush Doshi, the director of Brookings China Strategy Initiative, Skyped in to give the group of alumni more information on the Sino-U.S. relationship. Two Taiwanese politicians — Mark Ho and a former congressman who recently retired after six terms — also came to the event. 

    Yin emphasized that the two events ran smoothly only through hours of preparation. He also credited various groups of people at Swarthmore who lent a hand for the success of the event, including Nora Kelly and Alisa Giardinelli at the Communications Office as well as the IT department. 

    “[The event] only went very smoothly because it took hours of preparation … we first had to call IT for about an hour and a half to go through all the possible questions we could think of … we had a practice session which took us another hour or so where people pretended to be panelists and attendees to just make sure that everything would run smoothly,” Yin said. 

He also described the effort it took to set up the parliament venue and ascertain that the internet worked, that contingency plans were in place, and that enough translators were present to help journalists and the audience understand the panel. Professor Yin also accredited the success of the event to support from both the political science department and his students.

“The political science department was very supportive of the event, and it would be impossible without the help of my students. Ed [Tranter ’22] and Philip [Hou ’22] were also very helpful in producing the notes for the event, [which] I could then [use to] work on press statements. I would also like to thank John [Woodliff-Stanley ’21]. I expect it to be a little bit stressful to do his job. If he made a mistake, everyone would know that he made a mistake, [especially since there were] a lot of important people who either attended the webinar or saw the webinar afterward,” Yin said. 

According to Yin, the Brookings Institution was incredibly happy with the event and is thinking about developing a long-term collaboration with Swarthmore. Professor Yin described the potential of hosting these kinds of collaborations in the future on campus and how this could be a great way to involve students in direct work with think tanks. 

“Swarthmore students are really great. In fact, I think you guys are smarter than Swarthmore students I remember when I was at Swarthmore,” said Yin. “So, it will be nice to give them an opportunity to not only see how a think tank works, but to also get involved … It is important to work hard and study hard, but one goal people should also have in college is to think about how students can stop being students and become professionals.” 

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