Strength through adversity

Joint efforts in climate-change security could help build greater trust and understanding between China and the United States, argues Michael Davidson.

Last month, the United States commerce secretary, Gary Locke, went to China to promote US clean-energy technologies while treasury secretary Timothy Geithner and secretary of state Hillary Clinton followed for the second round of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. All discussed ways to strengthen the US-China relationship by combating environmental degradation.

The security implications of climate change offer promising areas of cooperation between the United States and China. Both countries agree on the potential damaging effects of climate change as well as on the need for coordinated international responses. However, US defence planners have not fully recognised the many benefits to be gained by cooperating with China on this front. Given the scale of the problem, a US-China climate-security partnership could dwarf existing military cooperation and help stabilise the bilateral relationship.

Global climate change threatens to increase the frequency and severity of natural disasters. Mitigating and adapting to these effects has significant security implications that defense ministries have only begun to acknowledge. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) noted that “While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.”

This year’s QDR – the first one ever to mention climate change – highlighted two important effects of climate and energy security: changing “operating environment, roles and missions” of US forces; and the impact on military facilities and capabilities.

The changing roles and missions refer to the new and unpredictable requirements of providing disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. According to a 2007 report by the US Center for Naval Analyses on which the QDR drew heavily, climate stresses can undermine public-health infrastructure, destabilise economies and contribute to a rise in terrorism.

The latter impact refers to, for example, the high price tag of delivering oil to the frontlines and the responsibility for mitigating climate-change effects. The US Department of Defense has singled out military installations as a test bed for renewable energy and energy-efficiency technologies. Furthermore, as part of President Obama’s executive order on federal sustainability, non-combat activities are to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 34% by 2020.

In its 2008 white paper on defense, China highlighted energy conservation and ecological projects but failed to list their security implications. In other venues, such as the 16th ASEAN Regional Forum in Thailand in 2009, however, China has indicated the need to look beyond traditional security threats.

In a recent article, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) major general Luo Yuan called non-combat military activities overseas a “new mission for a new era” of the PLA. However, China has failed to keep up with the United States, Japan and other major powers in standardising key elements of these activities such as personnel training and logistics support. This substantially restricts the PLA’s future presence abroad. He further emphasised that cooperation and dialogue are fundamental to these types of activities.

As these reports indicate, the two countries are looking beyond their current capabilities in managing the potential conflicts over access to natural resources and the effects of environmental degradation. Where there are shared interests, these authors suggest, there should be cooperation, because the benefits to be gained – building trust, sharing best practices and developing responsive capacity – are too great to ignore.

Given the unease with which many defence ministries view the rise of China, a cooperative initiative on climate security between the United States and China would take advantage of its confidence-building components, while paving the way for engagement on other areas traditionally managed by militaries.

Besides using existing frameworks, however, there is a dearth of ideas on how to implement the necessary military exchanges, such as joint training exercises and research programmes. The QDR only calls for a “multidimensional” US-China relationship that manages the risks of conflict while strengthening areas of mutual interest.

This oversight is, in large part, due to the lack of examples of environmental-security partnerships applicable to China. The US Department of Defense’s only large-scale environmental-cooperation project is in the Baltic Sea Region (BALTDEC, better known as the “Riga Initiative”) which was established in 2003 to focus on shared water resources. As it depended on the NATO framework and only concerned water management, however, the lessons learned do not transfer well to east Asian climate-change cooperation. The Arctic Council, created in 1996, has also gained new significance in light of global-warming effects in the Arctic Circle, but has been unable get past core issues of sovereignty and sea lanes. The Council was further sidelined at the recent G8 meeting of Arctic foreign ministers when some members were not invited to discuss climate-change impacts in the region.

Of sufficient scope and ambition, in light of the extreme consequences of inaction, is the Desertec Industrial Initiative, a collaboration between Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. This German-based US$550 billion (3.8 trillion yuan) programme, which was established in 2009 by the Club of Rome and the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Corporation, will use European and US technology to create an intercontinental grid of renewable electricity. It pairs recognised regional and technological advantages, thus opening the door for future cooperation between the otherwise distinct regions.

To meet the new transnational threat of climate change, the QDR calls for collaborations with “both traditional allies and new partners”. The United States and China are natural new partners. Neither can confront alone the human dislocation and resource competition caused by environmental degradation. Furthermore, of all the governmental agencies examining climate change, only militaries have the necessary logistical structures to react cooperatively and quickly.

A new US-China security partnership would complement the 2009 inter-governmental “memorandum of understanding to enhance cooperation on climate change, energy and the environment” that established a regular policy dialogue on these topics. It could also build on the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which was designed to address a large range of shared concerns, including regional security and global issues such as climate change. A new track on climate-security cooperation can strengthen ties in both dialogues.

Cooperation has already begun. For example, last May, China and the United States participated multilaterally in the ASEAN Regional Forum’s First Voluntary Demonstration of Response on Disaster Relief (ARF/VDR). The United States and China should go the next step to initiate a joint exercise focussing specifically on climate change-induced disasters.

In addition, climate security extends beyond traditional disaster preparedness, into climate change mitigation and scientific research. The US Office of Naval Research wants to establish scientific exchanges with the Chinese on alternative energy and other basic science through its proposed joint forces Hong Kong office. The Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the US Army Research, Development and Engineering Command already support basic science research projects with other Asian countries on superconductors and biofuels.

By focussing on scientific research and disaster preparedness, the United States and China can reframe existing military exchanges to focus on areas of critical cooperation: energy security concerns as well as human security needs such as cheap energy, food shortages and refugee relief. Instead of bickering over borders and air space, it is first better to establish a working day-to-day relationship over matters of mutual concern and interest. A US-China climate-security partnership can draw on the best instincts and science of both countries, both of which are firm ground for building trust and understanding.

Michael Davidson is a visiting fellow at
Asia Policy Point in Washington, DC. Prior to this he was a Fulbright fellow at the Tsinghua-BP Clean Energy Research and Education Center in Beijing. You can follow his work at East Winds.

This article was originally published by the
Pacific Forum CSIS. It is used here with permission.

Homepage image shows premier Wen Jiabao greeting Timothy Geithner and Hillary Clinton in Beijing.