October 07, 2009

Events from Around Town: China and Climate Security

It is always great to get out of the office and I was fortunate enough yesterday to get over to my old stomping grounds at the Wilson Center for an event on China and Climate Security. Linda Jakobson, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, presented an interesting assessment on China’s approach to climate security and offered her thoughts on how China plans to address those challenges. She was joined by Murray Scot Tanner, a China specialist at the Center for Naval Analyses, who offered a great snapshot of how the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is engaging climate change.

A New Approach to Climate: Security

One of the most interesting takeaways was that it was apparently the National Intelligence Council’s climate change assessment that prompted China to engage climate change as a security threat. According to Jakobson, China found the NIC assessment on China in particular to be a “useful reference” for its own climate security studies. In fact, many public statements on climate security coming out of Beijing use specific language from the NIC assessment.

As Jakobson noted, there are two new signs that China is incorporating the security dimensions of climate change into its own strategic thinking. The first came when the PLA National Defense University was commissioned by the State Council to write a detailed report on climate threats to Chinese security. The second was the establishment of a Military Climatic Change Committee that would be tasked to address climate change as a “military struggle” and to offer political and technical support to respond to the impacts of a changing climate. According to Jakobson, the PLA views climate change as an opportunity to improve its domestic profile as its tasked with more humanitarian and disaster missions at home. She noted in particular the PLA’s emergency response to the deadly 2008 Sichuan earthquake and said that it was the first time that “they [PLA] were looked upon as the People’s Army.”

Combating Climate Change: A Balancing Act

Combating climate change will force China to strike a balance between its desire for robust economic growth and its need to nurture its image as a responsible international actor. Nevertheless, for China, combating climate change cannot compromise economic growth, according to Jakobson. And, as she noted in her remarks, this is very much on par with President Hu Jintao’s statement last month at the United Nations when he said that China would “endeavor to cut carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by a notable margin by 2020 from the 2005 level,” (emphasis mine) but that total emissions would continue to rise as China continues its economic development.

One thing Jakobson emphasized to watch for will be a major clean energy initiative between the United States and China when President Obama and President Hu Jintao meet in Beijing next month. However she seemed cautiously optimistic, noting that any sort of initiative would take time to implement and that China will be hard pressed to agree to anything it is not ready to accept.  

The People’s Army Responds

Murray Scot Turner offered some particularly interesting remarks on the PLA’s adaptation to climate change. What was interesting was that the way he described how the PLA is engaging climate change, in some ways, parallels how the U.S. military is engaging climate change. According to Turner, the PLA is in a transition right now and it is rapidly modernizing while redefining its roles and missions. Much like the U.S. military, the PLA is looking in particular at how climate change will impact its operating and strategic environments. Specifically the PLA is exploring climate change in the context of increasing military operations other than war; those nontraditional missions like humanitarian and disaster relief. What was not immediately clear, however, was whether or not the PLA has started to look at how climate change will impact its war fighting ability.

As Turner noted, Beijing and the PLA are starting to explore some of the military and security diplomacy issues that will come to pass with climate change, including how climate change will affect China’s relationship with its neighbors and whether or not Beijing will be compelled to reevaluate its non-intervention policy. According to Turner, one thing that has China concerned is that as the global community shifts its rhetoric and begins to talk about China as a responsible nation, the PLA may see an increased demand from the international community to provide disaster relief, perhaps in Southeast Asia where the impacts of climate change could be most acute. Turner also noted that the PLA will experience organizational dilemmas, offering an example of how the PLA does not have a unified Coast Guard that can respond to climate-induced disasters, but instead has multiple coast guards run by multiple agencies with overlapping jurisdictions.

If you would like to learn more about the event, China and Climate Security, the Wilson Center promises to publish an official summary of the proceedings on this page, and a video will be made available soon on Wilson Center OnDemand.