It is clear that water-related climate impacts spill over China’s borders, increasing the importance of water issues in China’s foreign and regional security policies.
This concern is reflected in the attitudes of China’s neighbours. In Pakistan, for instance, officials have suggested that changes in Himalayan meltwater could devastate agriculture in this already fragile country. A 2008 study from the Earth Policy Institute makes clear the heavy dependence of vast numbers of people on agriculture fed by glacial meltwater and an Asia Society report has similarly concluded that hydro-politics will be an increasingly potent force in Asian security.
The Mekong River system presents particular challenges for China’s security. Relations between China and its downstream neighbours in the Mekong basin have long been fragile. This situation is likely to be exacerbated by the construction of several dams in Chinese territory, which restrict flow to downstream nations. If, as climate models suggest, water flow to the Mekong becomes more variable under climate change, China’s “asymmetric” control of the river’s headwaters will become an issue of even greater concern to south-east Asian nations.
This power asymmetry is of special significance since research on water and conflict suggests a high density of dams is associated with conflictive behaviour unless freshwater treaties are involved. China has steadfastly refused to join such “hard law” regimes in the Mekong region. Thus it seems reasonable to assert that China will have to improve its cooperative frameworks and increase diplomacy if it is to avoid significant tension with Mekong nations as the flow of the river changes along with the climate.
There are some signs that China’s strategic studies community is beginning to come to grips with these realities. China’s “New Security Concept”, promulgated since the late 1990s, addresses environmental and social issues, and emphasises cooperation and dialogue as a means of conducting foreign relations.
As a subset of this trend, China’s strategic studies and international relations community has devoted increasing attention to the potentially destabilising impacts of climate change. For example, citing the broadening definition of security in the west, one prominent Chinese article advocates creating a special policy research group that focusses on the political and security dimensions of environmental change.
Moreover, a series of western studies, including a widely-read 2004 study from the US Department of Defense, have prompted commentary within China on the possibility that climate-related resource shortages could lead to conflict or even war. Some non-official commentators have, more specifically, identified water-related conflict as a growing threat to relations between China and neighbouring countries.
Water issues have, in parallel with this commentary, become more prominent in China’s relations with some neighbours. China has in recent years concluded a number of agreements with countries including Russia and Kazakhstan regarding the demarcation and protection of transboundary rivers. Furthermore, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), initially promoted largely as a body for expanding security cooperation, has begun working on water issues. The SCO’s 2004 meeting was devoted to water and, in 2005, the organisation signed a compact with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to broaden cooperation on water resources.
In contrast, however, the Chinese government has appeared hesitant to link climate change and security at a general level. Beijing has strongly opposed United Nations efforts to connect the two by debating climate change issues in the Security Council. China Daily, the country’s official English-language newspaper, editorialised that “The call for the international community to address climate change is sensible, but sensationalising it as an issue of security is conspiratorial.”
One could read this hesitancy in several ways. China’s long-standing support for the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs probably leads to suspicion of non-traditional security paradigms. In addition, it is important to view the government’s reluctance to link climate change and security in general in the context of Beijing’s determination to avoid binding greenhouse-gas emissions reductions. Nonetheless, there is substantial evidence to suggest a shift of thinking is taking place at the domestic level, prompted in large part by the social challenges posed by a changing climate.
If at the international level Chinese officials take a dim view of linking climate change and security, domestically they appear to take very seriously the consequences of water-related climate-change impacts. Premier Wen Jiabao, for instance, was quoted in 1998 as saying, “The survival of the Chinese nation is threatened by the country’s shortage of water.” Lin Erda, a prominent member of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, has similarly called attention to the threat posed by retreating glaciers, saying that these and other effects of climate change “directly threaten China’s food security”.
Several of China’s most strategically important regions are predicted to suffer significant water resource shortages as a result of climate change. Some 23% of China’s population lives in western regions, where glacial meltwater provides the principal dry season water source, and as glaciers melt, water will become increasingly scarce.
One study blames climate change for causing a decrease in stream flow during the summer months. This induces desertification, which, exacerbated by population growth, has imposed serious socioeconomic costs on an already poor area. Such impacts are particularly significant since these western regions are not only impoverished but also the most restive in China, being home to ethnic minorities who have long mounted challenges to Beijing’s rule.
Changes in water availability in China’s north-west can pose security challenges in two primary ways. First, competition over scarce resources can exacerbate existing tensions between China’s majority Han ethnic group and minority groups such as Tibetans and Uyghurs. As a 2009 Asia Society report concluded, “One could certainly foresee the potential for conflict as urbanisation and industry begin to deplete already scarce water supplies, particularly if certain Han-run businesses are perceived to be receiving favourable treatment in water resource allotment.”
Second, water scarcity could increase the number of “environmental refugees” – a well established concept in Chinese discourse that describes the internal migration of people to regions where resources seem more plentiful – from the north-west, potentially inflaming ethnic tensions as they seek opportunity elsewhere in China.
Sociological studies have found that an increasing number of farmers in Gansu province are abandoning their lands as a result of declining water resources. Similar phenomena have been described in Tibet, where a variety of challenges are inducing higher rates of out-migration of ethnic Tibetans.
The danger posed by such “environmental refugees” is that they may be deprived of the means to sustain livelihoods in their new homes. Research has indicated that gradual environmental deterioration affects the very poor disproportionately; already bereft of resources, they have little capacity to re-establish themselves elsewhere. Arable land is scarce in China, and environmental refugees, pulled away from their livelihoods and kinship networks, often face great difficulty setting up new livelihoods when forced to resettle. This prospect is particularly notable because, while the concept of “environmental refugees” is well established in Chinese academia, relatively little attention is devoted to potential domestic impacts.
Scott Moore is a graduate student at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute and previously held a Fulbright Fellowship at the College of Environmental Science and Engineering, Peking University.
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