Lawmakers in Washington don’t agree on a lot these days. One of the few issues with broad bipartisan support is the importance of U.S. allies and partners in an increasingly competitive world. The Biden Administration’s National Security Strategy argues that the “unrivaled network of allies and partners” of the United States is the “envy of [its] adversaries.” Meanwhile, in announcing her priorities for the coming year, the Republican chair of the House Appropriations committee, Representative Kay Granger (TX), noted that, “At a time when our enemies are becoming more aggressive, we must continue to support our partners and allies around the world.”
U.S. allies and partners bring to bear real value on some of the most significant national security threats facing our country, whether in counter-terrorism, forward-basing capacity, or disaster response. To maintain those relationships, as Granger noted, it is critical that the United States continue to provide reliable assistance to those allies and partners. The question is, in today’s complex security environment, what kind of support do our allies and partners want? More often than not, funding for climate adaptation and resilience is at the top of the list. While opponents of climate funding claim this is in opposition to competing with U.S. adversaries like China, the two goals are not mutually exclusive.
In 2021, one of us wrote about the importance of U.S. support for climate needs in the Philippines in particular. Since that time, climate hazards in the Indo-Pacific have become more acute while U.S. competition with China has become sharper, and countries in the region have become more vocal in their frustration with the lack of action on climate change in their region. In 2022, Fiji’s Defense Minister said, “In our blue Pacific continent, machine guns, fighter jets, gray ships, and green battalions are not our primary security concerns. The single greatest threat to our very existence is climate change.”
However, the same Pacific leaders lament the lack of support from wealthy countries to address this threat. In May, the President of Palau, Surangel S. Whipps Jr., noted that climate financing opportunities are “few and difficult,” and that the Global North was not following through on its funding promises.
Unfortunately, all too frequently, U.S. policymakers view funding for such programs in opposition to competing with U.S. adversaries. In its FY2024 proposed spending bill, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives eliminated a range of U.S. climate finance provisions, including all U.S. contributions to the Green Climate Fund, a United Nations-led body that provides assistance to developing countries in adaptation and mitigation practices to counter climate change. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) derided it as a “boondoggle of climate change spending” in contrast to the funding needed to bolster U.S. standing against China.
The reality is: competing with China and funding climate resilience for U.S. allies and partners are not mutually exclusive goals – in fact, they are complementary. Helping allies and partners manage climate risks not only shows them the United States is attentive to their needs, it can also build their resilience so that they are available when the United States needs them. It’s a win-win.
Take Papua New Guinea (PNG), which is rated highly vulnerable to climate-driven sea level rise, strengthened typhoons, and fresh water insecurity, and heavily courted by China in recent years. In June the United States signed a new security pact with the country, gaining exclusive access to develop and operate out of PNG bases. To sustain and maintain this presence, the United States will need access to reliable energy sources, clean, fresh water, and an economically vibrant, healthy local population.
Another example is Vanuatu, an island nation facing the existential threat of sea level rise. The United States has promised to open an Embassy there for the first time, largely as an effort to counter Chinese influence in the region. For its part, the Vanuatu government is more concerned about climate change than China, releasing an ambitious climate strategy in 2022 and strongly advocating for the Global North to help fund its plans.
U.S. climate finance assistance to PNG and Vanuatu to achieve these climate goals – whether through the Green Climate Fund, which has previously supported such efforts in both countries, or bilaterally – would help ensure the U.S. presence is as strong and resilient as possible. Far from mutually exclusive to competing with China, such investments are mutually beneficial.
The timing is right for the United States to step up and lead on climate finance. At the U.N. Conference of Parties meeting last year in Egypt, developing countries for the first time called out China publicly for its lack of financing support given its high carbon emissions. More and more countries recognize China is not a reliable partner in tackling climate risks. When U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen went to China last month, she sent a message to developing countries that the United States has their backs by calling on Beijing to up its climate finance commitments.
Of course, pointing out China’s malfeasance only gets the United States so far. To truly demonstrate that the United States is a more responsible global leader, Washington must present an alternative and show up as the partner of choice for countries in the Indo-Pacific, taking seriously the security concerns, including climate changes, on the top of their agendas.
In an oversight hearing with Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry last month, Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX) argued, “countering China and their malign aggression should be the top priority of the State Department.” Many politicians agree. One of the best ways to do so is financing the climate resilience and adaptation needs of our allies and partners. That will generate the goodwill we need to ensure that the United States maintains its role as a preferred partner and ally, in the Asia-Pacific, and the world.