Saturday, June 6, 2009

Climate change as a security issue for China

CGS has been absent for the last month, having been caught on the wrong side of China's Great Firewall (The twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre was Thursday). CGS has also been working on a paper entitled "Climate Change, Water, and China's National Security," to be presented at a conference in Hong Kong later this month.

Here's what CGS learned and concluded:

China and its neighboring countries are in for several acute water-related impacts as a result of climate change. Some areas of northwest China and eastern India will face severe irrigation challenges as water availability from Himalayan glacial meltwater decreases precipitously by the end of the century. Second, arid regions of China, especially the north, will become even drier. Third, south China and the Mekong delta will come under severe risk of catastrophic flooding. Essentially, most parts of China will have too little water when they need it (the dry season), and too much when they don't (the wet season).

China is fortunate in that it is wealthy enough that it can adapt to many of the worst consequences of these climactic changes. It can build dams and flood control infrastructure to store water and prevent destructive flooding, and it can invest in massive schemes like the South-North Water Transfer project to redress regional water shortages. Even if water shortages threaten crop production in China's breadbasket northern regions, China is wealthy enough that it can import much greater amounts of food.

What is clear is that water-related climate impacts will stress social and political institutions. Yes, China can invest in adaptation, but it will be expensive. Government agencies and the military will be harder pressed to develop response capabilities to water shortages. Meanwhile, water shortages threaten social stability in fragile areas of China, especially Xinjiang. Finally, water issues will become a more prominent feature of China's foreign relations, for which it is currently unprepared and inexperienced.

Climate change does not (obviously) threaten China's security in the same way that Soviet Russia once did, or that (according to the censors...) Twitter does today (it has been blocked for weeks). Rather, it will be an acute stress factor for social and political actors. Add in the many other such stressors (income inequality, economic hardship, political illiberalism, etc), and China will be compelled to pay more attention to climate impacts in the coming years.

Of course, and this is important on the eve of the US climate envoy's visit to China, China wouldn't have to worry so much if it commits to reduce its GHG emissions at Copenhagen this December. CGS believes the enduring value of seeing climate as a strategic issue for China is that it can help compel Beijing to see that climate change will stress China's social and political foundations, and is not simply an economic or ecological issue. Many of the government's great projects, such as the Western Development Project (Xibu da kaifa) will be greatly imperiled by climate impacts.

On an only partially related note:

A brief word on the climate negotiations: I've recently been in several fora where I've gotten into arguments about the necessity of China accepting firm commitments, and it's just this simple: China is too big for it to be an X factor in the global climate equation. Any formula the negotiators come up with in Copenhagen is meaningless unless China's contribution is codified.

CGS knows it's preaching to the choir here, but had to get that off its chest.


  1. Scott,

    Very interesting piece. The climate security space recently has been focusing on weak and failing states as the areas most vulnerable to the security risks of climate change. Its important for us to look at the security effects on comparitively stable states like China.

    I'm a little afraid that the Chinese government is becoming convinced that they can just adapt their way out of whatever effects climate change will have, and they will ignore much-needed mitigation options. Studies like these can help to convince them otherwise.

    I'd be interested in reading your report. Could you send it to me after you present it?

    --Andrew Holland,
    Programme Manager and Research Associate
    Transatlantic Dialgoue on Climate Change and Security
    International Institute for Strategic Studies