In its interim national security strategy, the Biden administration highlighted the need to “out-compete” China, and argued deterring adversaries and defending U.S. interests will require a “robust” presence in the Indo Pacific. If the administration is serious about competition, then it must deliver on what matters to U.S. regional allies and partners: climate change and climate security.
In a 2021 survey of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members’ greatest fears, the threat of climate change outranked the threat of military conflict in the region by almost 10 points. For the Philippines, a crucial U.S. treaty ally in the region, the gap was almost 20 points. Majorities in Japan would rather protect the environment and manage climate change even at the expense of economic growth, and a recent survey by the Eurasia Group Foundation found that the single biggest way American democracy would be more attractive to Japan would be if the United States enacted climate change legislation. Public opinion surveys in Australia and South Korea, two other major U.S. allies, have identified climate change as their greatest national security threat. Meanwhile, in a 2020 Pew survey in the United States, nearly the same percentage of Americans named China’s power and influence as a “major threat” (62 percent) as named climate change (60 percent).
The data speaks for itself. In 2020, the Red Cross responded to a record 25 climate-related disasters in the Indo-Pacific. A World Bank study estimated that, without mitigation strategies, climate change will displace 40 million people in South Asia alone. Beyond the human tragedy, this is a significant regional security risk: the steps that some countries have taken to avoid absorbing climate migrants foment conflict. The wall India erected to keep Bangladeshi climate migrants out of Indian territory has led to deadly clashes.
The Biden administration appears to recognize these risks: Leaders from the Indo-Pacific made up a quarter of the attendees of the U.S.-led Leaders Summit on Climate in late April. The climate security panel led by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin featured the Japanese minister of defense and the secretary of finance for the Philippines. In his remarks, the Japanese minister of defense, Nobuo Kishi, identified a range of climate security concerns for his country, including the strain on Japanese Self Defense Forces from increased extreme weather events and climate-induced mass migration in the region. Now the question is, how does the United States move climate security from the halls of diplomacy into the field?
Moving from Talk to Action
To reestablish itself as the partner of first resort in the Indo-Pacific, the United States should use its logistical, technological, and scientific skills to help these countries prepare for and prevent the climate security risks they fear. U.S. forces in the region already help to build the capacity of allies and partners to defend themselves against State threats. Expanding these efforts to include and prioritize the “actorless” threat from climate change is as simple as replicating what the Defense Department is already doing for its own installations. Helping countries in the region conduct their own climate-risk assessments, and build more robust humanitarian aid and disaster relief capabilities would also pay dividends. As British Lt Gen. Richard Nugee, who led a recent climate security assessment for the U.K. Ministry of Defense, noted, “If you don’t deal with it today, you won’t be able to deal with it tomorrow.”
A climate security strategy for the region would also support U.S. goals of competing with China. If the United States can quickly follow through on its pledge at the climate summit to mobilize finance to drive the net-zero transition abroad – meaning the complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions – it could both blunt China’s soft power success by providing alternative clean energy options while also slowing the damaging climate effects of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The U.S. military is poised to help regional militaries to transition to clean energy – from sharing best practices in increasing energy efficiency at installations, to assistance in deploying clean decentralized energy generation and storage, to encouraging the electrification of vehicle fleets. Austin outlined these steps for the U.S. military in his remarks at the climate summit. They should be part of U.S. bilateral and multilateral engagements in the region as well.
Finally, managing climate change in the region would also ensure the U.S. military is able to continue to operate there. Chinese weaponry presents an anti-access/area denial (A2AD) challenge; so too does climate change. Worsening storms and overlapping typhoon seasons in Japan and South Korea threaten the structural integrity of U.S. bases in-country and inhibit reception, staging, and onward movement of forces flowing from the United States to the theater of operations. Rising sea levels threaten airfields on small islands like Guam, Palau, and Yap and diminish their utility as locations for prepositioned U.S. equipment. Without these locations, every military challenge in the region becomes significantly harder.
The momentum behind today’s focus on China comes from the belief, held by some in the national security establishment, that 20 years of war in the Middle East blinkered U.S. policymakers to Beijing’s rise. But the push to man, train, and equip for a traditional military confrontation, threatens to similarly blinker policymakers from addressing an even more consequential adversary: the one of our own making. Meeting climate change head on addresses an existential planetary threat and achieves the ends of great power competition in the Indo-Pacific and that should make it a top-tier security priority for the Biden administration in its engagements in the region.
If climate change considerations are not fully integrated into the U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific, one can only assume the United States is hoping record-breaking storms and sea levels will do what U.S. policymakers cannot. After all, it’s hard to fight over reefs and islands when they’re underwater.