Climate change and the shifting strategic landscape in the Pacific
14 Dec 2015|


What were once considered ‘non-traditional threats’ to continental regions of Eurasia and the Americas are now central security challenges for the Pacific island nations. The South Pacific is a region under siege as climate change and other non-traditional security threats like spurred migration, piracy intensify.

As islands in the world’s biggest ocean, those sovereign nations are constantly under threat from the waves via erosion, super-cyclones, and the infiltration of salt water into underground freshwater tables.

There’s no doubt that climate change poses serious challenges for hundreds of millions across the world, and to the international system itself. But for most other countries and regions, climate change doesn’t alter strategic calculations in the way it does for the nations of the South Pacific.

As regional states become more desperate for security and the livelihood of their peoples, their governments may be forced to make agreements that have wider strategic implications. In that way, the growing climate-induced insecurity of the South Pacific may ripple out and affect the balance of global prosperity and security.

As the UNFCCC’s 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) wraps up at the end of this week and attempts are made to achieve unprecedented global commitments to meet the impacts of a warming global climate, Pacific Island nation is at the frontline of this epic battle—both physically and politically.

But even if ambitious targets like cutting global emissions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees are agreed at COP21 and subsequently implemented, the worst effects of climate change may not be immediately curbed; they merely offset challenges to the safety and security of the people of the region.

In the meantime, the region must look to its defences, be they military, economic or political. And with that, the game opens for new, more complicated partnerships which will further complicate an already complex region. In turn, such a pivotal region affects the future for global security, and so a new dynamic may develop that will upend idealised relationships.

Previously, the Pacific had been thought of as a strategic backwater for regional and global powers like Australia and the US. But the new challenges have compelled the region to look for more solvent, ‘freer’ opportunities from abroad.

Perhaps the most notable new partners in the region are China, and more recently, India. The US Rebalance, welcomed by most countries in the region, has so far failed to make a mark on the current trajectory of events in the region.

The way the Pacific looks and assesses threats is important for effective response to security threats in and of the region.

Islands are key components of maritime security architecture, and their appearance and disappearance cause complications for diplomacy, international law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Recently, the US Navy conducted Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea, just across from the Kiribati archipelago.

In the South Pacific, the critical issue is the disappearance of islands. The country of Kiribati bought land in Fiji as a standby refuge in the event that inundation renders its islands uninhabitable. Given China’s ever-warming relations with Fiji, this may give China an inroad to relations with two countries in one go. Kiribati’s location is ideal for satellite launch and monitoring positions. China used to have a listening post there, until Kiribati switched to recognising Taiwan. China may be keen to resurrect the post, and Beijing’s friends in Fiji may influence Kiribati to allow that to happen in exchange for helping Kiribati in its time of climate crisis.

Another anomaly exists if countries lose their land to increased erosion via sea-level rise, storm surges, and so on. Should they continue to retain those coordinates and still be regarded as a legal sovereign state (as per the Montevideo Convention)? The people of Kiribati will believe that they have a right to the location of their country, and the resources it contains, even if the land itself is gone. What will become of international legal conventions?

A new set of challenges emerge as islands disappear, including the potential to move the mark of territorial waters. In the case of the South Pacific and Kiribati in particular, with China a close guarantor of Fijian national interests, and the soon to be nested Kiribati government, those questions will strain resolve. Will the PLA Navy finally break out of the Second Island Chain, and the South China Sea, to be a true blue-water navy in the Pacific?

If that were to happen, other powers’ own strategies in the pivotal Pacific may be severely flanked.

The spectrum of challenges that bigger countries understand as threats to their security is different from that which challenges survival of smaller states. Traditional security challenges for continental regions are also different from maritime regions. For example, traditionally for countries in Eurasia and the Americas, security challenges are focused around sabotage and aggression from other neighboring countries or from abroad.

But for the Pacific, there’s a lot less probability of inter-state violence. What will compel strategic behavior, and underlies the survival of Pacific island states, are the elements that make them unique and strategically valuable: that they’re dots of land embedded in vast oceans.

In the flurry to find new and inspiring solutions, infusing the centrality of security into the politics of emissions, the science of global warming, energy and global business mightn’t be appealing enough.

However, survival compels rational behaviour and actions.

COP21 may achieve global targets in emissions and energy standards. It may also entice the Pacific to look at the summit as a source of free capital for adaptation and mitigation. Such mitigation and adaptation efforts, however, will need to be customised to the security realities of the South Pacific.

The colonial and postcolonial institutions installed in the Pacific aren’t fit for the dynamic challenges of the maritime 21st century. And conditioning the region to survive by handouts has proven counter-productive.

The best ways forward may not be just ‘adaptation’, but an evolutionary jump: especially for traditional development partners of the region to guarantee and facilitate (or at least not impede) new industries, viable economies, and more effective institutions that can handle the rapidly changing environment.

Climate-proofed growth for Pacific economies is the best pathway to a stable region, and a secure pivot for global security in the future.