The Link Between National Security and Climate Change in Asia

The White House is preparing to launch a Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by President Joe Biden beginning Thursday. 40 World leaders were invited to participate in the two-day series of conversations on climate and emissions as The Washington Post quotes anonymous sources saying the Biden administration is expected to commit to cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to be among the leaders attending and in a rare statement of cooperation amid heightened tensions on other issues-  including Taiwan, trade and actions in the South China Sea – the US and China issued a joint statement ahead of the summit, pledging cooperation and urgent progress on climate issues.

As part of a special series on climate in partnership with The Intelligence Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Cipher Brief Expert Kristin Wood, The Cipher Brief is focusing on the national security connections to climate change. 

On the eve of the summit, authors Sarang Shidore, Shiloh Fetzek, and Rachel Fleishman look at the threat in Asia and Southeast Asia and offer specific recommendations for the US National Security Community.

Climate Change as a Security Threat in Asia

Traditionally, climate security analysis has focused on vulnerable populations in fragile states.   Yet climate change also sharpens competition over food, water, energy and other shared resources between neighboring states, and threatens military and other security-sensitive installations.

Two recent reports, focused on Southeast Asia and South Asia, from the Expert Group of the International Military Council on Climate and Security stress both aspects of the climate security challenge and make the case that it is central to U.S. national security. The reports lay bare the complex security challenges on the horizon that will require the United States, as a core stakeholder in Asia’s stability and balance of power, to be more engaged to prevent destabilizing outcomes in the region. These outcomes include potential worsening of tensions in the South China Sea, China-India and India-Pakistan rivalries, greater opportunities for violent extremist organizations, and internal instability magnified by damaging climate impacts.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia’s geo-strategic tensions, underlying security challenges, urban vulnerabilities, and resource competition will be further stressed by climate impacts like extreme weather, flooding, sea level rise, heatwaves, and fish migration.

Southeast Asian societies have traditionally exhibited resilience to disasters, but the increasing frequency and severity of storms and flooding, exacerbated by sea level rise, will endanger human and economic security in the region to a degree that governments may struggle to cope with. Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, which caused nearly 8,000 fatalities in the Philippines in 2013, foretells new and perilous extremes. Climate variability will also likely disrupt transboundary resource management, for example along the Mekong and in the South China Sea (SCS), challenging existing arrangements to adapt to new realities. How these changes are managed will shape diplomatic relationships and governments’ legitimacy in a more unpredictable world. Impacts on food security, livelihoods and human development will likely frustrate the expectations of a young and growing population.

Southeast Asia’s coastal megacities are foundational to the stability and security of their respective countries. Recent analyses have resulted in a tripling of estimates of people vulnerable to sea level rise and coastal inundation.  Major infrastructure and governance challenges will impact human development, security and stability in the region.

Climate change adds stress to competing territorial claims in the SCS, a flashpoint for geostrategic competition between China, its neighbors and the United States. The SCS has 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proven and probable reserves. Fishing provides a mainstay of regional diets and local economies, but climate change will hasten its decline. Armed Chinese vessels have attacked fishing Vietnamese and Philippine fishing boats near the contested Spratly and Paracel Islands, evicting the boats and occasionally holding crews hostage. The U.S. Department of Defense has criticized China for arming a seafaring militia alongside its navy and coast guard.

South Asia

South Asia is among the regions most vulnerable to climate change, given magnifying impacts on floods, drought, cyclones, coastal inundation, and heat spikes. These threats have security implications at the domestic level, potentially enhancing protests, insurgencies and politicization of migration. Climate change also contributes to international security risks in the region, particularly transboundary water contestations between nuclear powers India and Pakistan (over the Indus river basin) and China and India (primarily over the Brahmaputra river basin). A changing climate impacts both river basins through increased intensity of rainfall leading to enhanced floods, flow variability, growing silt loads, and dam building projects that increase mistrust between these pairs of rivals.

India and Pakistan have the advantage of an existing, long-standing accord, the Indus Waters Treaty. Nevertheless the treaty has been under increasing stress in recent years. Deteriorating relations between India and Pakistan have been the key reason, though a thaw has recently emerged. Climate change, among other environmental factors, is incentivizing Indian dam designs (particularly on the Chenab river) that could cumulatively achieve a high level of manipulable storage capacity, even as increased water stress in Pakistan encourages misperceptions of Indian responsibility. The India-China contestation over the flood-prone Brahmaputra (known as the Yarlung Tsangpo in China) is a much more recent development. The basin lacks a substantial water treaty, which disadvantages future disputes. China, as the upstream actor in this case, is building a number of dams, including a massive 60 GW planned project at the Great Bend of the river.

China’s clean energy commitments, themselves driven by climate change, are driving the expansion of hydropower projects such as the Great Bend. Climate change is also likely to increase flood intensity in India’s Assam state. These developments may induce Indian perceptions of Chinese water manipulation, whether such manipulation occurs or not. China’s historic lack of transparency about its transboundary river projects does not help.

China’s rivalry with India has sharpened since a violent clash on their contested border in June 2020. Preventing an escalation is in the U.S. national interest. At the same time, the United States is increasingly centering India in its strategy to counter growing Chinese power, creating a complex security triangle among the three countries.

The China Factor

China is a consequential actor in almost all major inter-state rivalries in the region, and is also a major carbon emitter, though it recently pledged to achieve “Net Zero” status by 2060. The U.S.-China relationship promises to be difficult, with President Biden foreseeing “extreme competition” and security groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue expanding agendas that implicitly seek to counter Beijing.

Even so, China and the United States agree much more than disagree on climate change. Both countries face increasing natural disasters and use civilian and military capacities to respond.  Cooperation between their military and civilian agencies on climate-related issues could act as a needed mechanism for stabilizing an otherwise risk-prone relationship.

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Recommendations for the U.S. National Security Community

As the reports suggest, these complex climate-enhanced challenges, along with the Biden Administration’s whole-of-government approach to climate, present U.S. national security experts a new task. U.S. allies and competitors in the Indo-Pacific are watching to see how the Administration’s strategy manifests in their region. To advance the U.S. national interest, national security actors should:

  • Encourage regional military, intelligence and security actors to incorporate climate change projections and their likely impacts into security planning, training and operations in a holistic and systematic manner. U.S.-hosted joint exercises in disaster preparedness and response could be “upgraded” to include more predictive modeling, scenario analysis and gaming, to heighten preparedness for the security challenges that climate change poses.
  • Urge the region’s governments to enshrine climate security goals into all relevant regional forums. ASEAN, East Asia Summit, the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue could start coordinating data-sharing, planning, funding and emergency response protocols.
  • Engage China, as the most consequential Asian actor, to ensure it is a core part of the solution. Given sovereignty sensitivities, a first step would be exploring cooperation on data-sharing and data-interpretation on potential quick-onset climate impacts. Eventually, collaboration could expand into HA/DR. Including China as a climate stakeholder could help build trust even as U.S.-China relations struggle elsewhere.
  • Partner with officials in other U.S. government agencies on climate security matters. The U.S. national security community can build partnerships with Energy, Commerce, and Treasury, as well as the scientific community on the nexus of climate change and national security.

The geopolitics of climate have arrived in the Indo Pacific. Tackling climate security offers a path for the U.S. to reclaim its regional leadership role, while furthering stability and human security in the region.

Sarang Shidore is Senior Fellow with the Council on Strategic Risks in Washington, DC, Senior Research Analyst at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and an independent consultant in geopolitical risk and climate/energy transitions.

Shiloh Fetzek is Senior Fellow for International Affairs at the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, DC, an Associate Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and an independent consultant on climate change and security working with the UN, World Bank and UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.  

Rachel Fleishman is Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific at the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks in Washington, DC, and Asia-Pacific liaison at the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS).

Join Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs for The Climate Change, Intelligence and Global Security Conference on Friday, April 23 from 12p – 5:30p ET

Read more expert-driven national security insights, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief.

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