A few days back I returned from a great research trip to Vietnam as part of our South China Sea project here at CNAS. My interviews and conversations were fabulous and extremely helpful for determining how to frame that region’s natural resource issues in terms of their U.S. security relevance.
It is clear to anyone who reads the news that resources are serving as a driver (or an excuse, depending on your views) for conflict in the South China Sea, but they equally provide options for new areas of cooperation. What all this means in detail, though, is far less straightforward than just tallying up the maritime resources at stake or drawing exclusive economic zone lines on maps. There is much great work out there on human security issues in this region, directly environmental research (sans security considerations), and Stimson in particular has done great work on transboundary water issues and related topics. This is all informing our work, but we’re also now working to place this piece properly in the context of the broad maritime security questions, hanging military balance and other hard security topics facing the United States for this increasingly tense region.
In this endeavor, part of the research Will and I are doing involves comparing regional, national and local dynamics that will combine to help determine the paths chosen by the countries bordering the South China Sea with their resource issues. As a kind of case study, my research pointed me toward doing just that for Vietnam, with a heavy focus on the effects of climate change on its existing natural resource strains and goals.
In particular, since Japan’s tragic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters, a question pressing into my analysis has been this: can we actually adapt to the effects of climate change? Will it be possible to minimize the pain that this is going to cause, especially for some of the world’s most vulnerable populations? Japan is one of the world’s most technologically capable nations and has advanced planning for worst-case disaster scenarios, yet its losses are still tremendous. Will even our best efforts prove ineffective? These questions get to the heart of how we plan the country's future approach to the South China Sea, in particular in thinking through HA/DR needs, new topics for mil-to-mil cooperation, and soft power policies.
With these questions in mind, I spoke to central and local government officials, academics, non-governmental organizations and businesspeople to get a better sense of how resource and environmental issues were playing a role in Vietnam on shore and at sea. I remained far broader than the “can we adapt” question in my discussions, not wanting to lead those I was conversing with in preconceived directions. My broader findings will inform how we discuss resources in our report later this year, but I’ve already written up my initial impressions on the climate change adaptation question, which Current Intelligence was kind enough to publish.
As I wrote, “My overwhelming sense is that many of the first steps needed for adaptation are happening, and that with the proper resources, the prospects are fairly good that Vietnam can avoid some of the most destabilizing conditions that climate change could trigger.” I outline the basic reasons for this optimism, but I have to admit that I was surprised that I came away feeling at all hopeful given my concerns going in that our tilting toward adaptation (rather than mitigating contributions to climate change) was a path fraught with peril.
There is still much important work to be done in implementing a lot of the good adaptation work in planning in Vietnam and elsewhere. But if my cautious optimism isn’t misguided, this has bearing on how we should consider policy options for cooperation in the region. Much natural resource and environmental cooperation is backed financially by developed countries or NGOs, and their confidence that funding will be spent effectively and with real results is critical – especially in the tight budget environment we’re in. Efficacy and progress also make cooperation and soft power more attractive to decision makers who are choosing the character of their country’s role in their surrounding region. If cooperation doesn’t actually enhance stability (or, at best, drive economic growth and other positive effects), it makes it that much harder to convince countries that their most effective posture won’t be a competitive one.
This is all just the tip of the iceberg in terms of findings from my research and thoughts on how this work may contribute to broader U.S. security and foreign policy strategy. Vietnam is witnessing a lot of movement on climate change in recent months, and as some of its biggest changes become public we’ll be sure to update you on them and help explain their security relevance. These are exciting times for Vietnam and the South China Sea broadly.