Massive sub-sea oil and gas reserves are another source of aggressive positioning. The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimates that there are about 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proven and probable reserves in the South China Sea. Some Chinese projections are even higher. The US government reckons the value of these reserves at US$2.5 trillion.
The assertion of claims to this sub-sea resource trove has become a high-stakes competition between ASEAN states and China. Indeed, Chinese action to halt Malaysian, Philippine and Vietnamese exploration in disputed waters, while preparing for its own such activities, has rankled the neighbors and provoked widespread condemnation. Amid these disputes in the region, the US significantly increased its patrols. As ASEAN countries consider their energy-development options, competition for sub-sea resources will remain a potential catalyst for conflict.
Violent extremist groups in Southeast Asia seek power and independence through occasional acts of violence. Examples include the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinasi and affiliated groups in Southern Thailand and the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups and communist New People’s Army in the Philippines. When drought and other climate stressors hit poorer villages, the offer of alternative employment may be one factor driving recruitment into these groups, which can use local skill sets (such as fishermen’s ability to make explosives for blast fishing) for violent political ends.
Trans-boundary water sharing is another source of inter-state tension. For example, the Mekong River, which originates on the Tibetan Plateau in China but supports 60 million people in six countries, has been subject to a spate of dam building in the quest for renewable energy. Water dropped to its lowest level in 100 years during the summer of 2019, devastating fishing yields, upsetting crop cycles and affecting the riverine environment. A US government-funded study found 126 meters of river height “missing”, corresponding to water retained in the 11 dams built by a Chinese state-owned enterprise since 2012. The combination of climate-affected river flows and dams built for low-carbon hydropower and irrigation is a potential catalyst for conflict in Asia and indeed throughout the world.
The energy-climate security nexus in South and Southeast Asia
Energy consumption and climate change form a negative feedback loop with alarming implications for climate security in the region. Temperatures soaring above tolerable levels make air conditioning a basic necessity. Yet the International Energy Agency reports that indoor cooling is available in only 20 percent of Southeast Asian households, and at even lower levels in South Asia. Demand for airconditioning is a key contributor to a surge in the demand for energy. Coal of course is the main power source.
Unless regional governments recognize this threat and make the transition to renewable energy, the region will be trapped in a dangerous cycle of growing carbon emissions contributing to the global stock of carbon dioxide, thereby fueling ever-more-harmful climate-security threats. The choice is clear: Reducing fossil-fuel use will positively affect climate security, while neglecting to address it will exacerbate the climate-security challenges in the region for decades to come.
Recommendations and conclusions
The converging risks of energy, climate and national security require a multi-disciplinary, systematic response. Policymakers in the domains of military and security, foreign policy and energy should holistically incorporate climate security into their portfolios, with consequential shifts in priority setting and resource allocation.
Here are three top recommendations from our reports:
Security actors in the region should fully integrate climate-change projections and their cascading effects into security projections, planning, equipment acquisition and training, including regular joint exercises to improve readiness for disaster response. Climate’s threat-multiplier effect should be considered in security assessments, planning, training and joint military exercises. Regional Climate Security Watch Centers should be created to make this process more efficient by feeding data-based analyses and recommendations to regional policymakers.
Foreign policy actors and regional governments should actively enshrine common climate-security and environmental goals into regional agreements and practices. Doing so will be particularly important to introducing stability and predictability into competing claims on key river basins and the South China Sea. Corollary initiatives to build platforms for data-sharing, planning, funding and emergency response will further the goals of communication, transparency and collaboration, which are essential to preventing disputes and de-escalating crises when they occur.
Energy policy actors should incorporate the systemic costs of human security, internal security and external security into the calculus of energy policy. Net-zero carbon targets announced by China (2060), Japan and Korea (2050) helped establish expectations that other Asian countries would do the same. Doing so would curb demand for new coal power plants (many previously funded by Chinese, Japanese and Korean foreign assistance, although that may be changing), shift assistance budgets to clean energy and energy storage, mitigate investment in stranded assets, and prevent carbon emissions which are fueling climate-security threats.
Climate change jeopardizes not only social and economic wellbeing in Asia, but the region’s security as well. The converging risks of energy, climate and security necessitate systemic, multi-disciplinary strategies coordinated across traditional bureaucratic silos. Fast action is essential, particularly to curb carbon emissions and adapt to locked-in climatic changes. Thus, science-based assessments and renewable-energy transition plans are critical to keeping climate change – and climate security disasters – out of the headlines in Asia.
The two reports by the Expert Group of the International Military Council on Climate and Security are available here for Southeast Asia and here for South Asia.