The South China Sea: A Potential Climate, Nuclear, Security Hotspot

Earlier this year, The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) convened its multidisciplinary Working Group on Climate, Nuclear, and Security Affairs to further investigate the intersections of these trends.  In the forthcoming weeks, CSR will publish a series of posts expanding on workshop discussions.  

The South China Sea: A Potential Climate, Nuclear, Security Hotspot
By Andrea Rezzonico

The Working Group on Climate, Nuclear, and Security Affairs, a project of CSR’s Converging Risks Lab, examines the nexus of existential threats stemming from climate change and nuclear risks—overlaid on the stress of ongoing security challenges such as terrorism and state fragility.

The South China Sea region faces a range of disruptive climate and security challenges, as several countries explore nuclear energy. The region is also influenced in various ways by most nuclear weapons-possessing countries, including the United States, China, India, Pakistan, and Russia. Ongoing territorial disputes, incidents of maritime confrontation and other current events underscore the area’s tenuous state of affairs. The Working Group accordingly considers this region a priority for investigation.

South China Sea 2019

In February, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Philippines in a bid to reassure President Duterte of U.S. support. Yet on the heels of Pompeo’s visit, a Philippine defense minister declared that the country would be reviewing a long standing treaty with its American allies. This proposed review stems from ratcheting tensions between Washington and Beijing; both powers are exerting their geopolitical influence in the contested South China Sea. The minister expressed concern that as the treaty stands, the Philippines would be automatically involved and essentially caught between U.S. and Chinese crossfire.

Climate-wise, extreme weather events have battered the South China Sea. The Working Group posits that the region holds lessons on what needs to be improved in future shock events.  In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan destroyed major agricultural areas, displaced over 4,000,000 people, facilitated a mass outbreak of disease, and destroyed critical infrastructure vital for recovery efforts. The economic impact of the worst storm in Philippine history was estimated at $5.8 billion.  

Since then, the government has developed several programs and initiatives meant to better prepare the country for natural disasters. These include:

  • The National Disaster Response Plan  (NDROP,) an effort to identify the mechanisms necessary to coordinate national and local responses
  • The Pre-Disaster Risk Assessment (PDRA), a local hazard assessment that incorporates exposure and vulnerability
  • Equipping and dedicating an Army, Air Force and Navy battalion to handle HADR missions

United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) and the Philippines also recently launched the first major project under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the construction of a Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR)  warehouse. Clearly, multilateral exercises and programs are paramount to resiliency efforts.

Although the government has implemented a number of successful mitigation policies, storms continue to overwhelm the territory.  A super typhoon labeled the most powerful storm of 2018 battered the Philippines in September, killing dozens. Climate change will exacerbate the frequency and intensity of these events.  In the coming decades, sea level rise around the islands is projected to occur at three times the rate of the global average. Meanwhile, nearby Jakarta is sinking due to a combination of extreme sea level rise and water extractions. Indonesia has also been grappling with natural disasters that have decimated communities throughout the islands. 2018 was the country’s deadliest year in over a decade due to earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, and flooding.

Shock events and the slower onset of climate change could significantly disrupt governance systems. However, these threats are inherently different from one another and warrant distinct disaster risk reduction and mitigation measures.

In the nuclear energy sphere, Indonesia’s National Atomic Energy Agency is making progress by releasing engineering roadmaps and designs for future nuclear reactors. There are also ongoing talks about reinstating the Philippines’ Bataan nuclear reactor although a Russian ambassador publicly stated the plant was beyond revival.

On nuclear weapons, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana recently rejected a local politician’s proposal to develop a nuclear arsenal as a deterrent to China and a means of pressing its side of territorial disputes. Lorenzana said that pursuing nuclear weapon capabilities was not the way to proceed, noting it would be a new offensive strategy along with the country being party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty.

These developments are occurring alongside serious security challenges, showing (among other things) the need for strong planning for security of any future nuclear sites. Extremism in the region shows no sign of abating. Although Philippine government forces have mostly defeated ISIS-affiliated organizations in the south, there continue to be clashes and attacks. As of last November, there were an estimated 500 fighters in the country. In an attempt to sway local residents away from joining the militant group, U.S. and Phillippine forces are ramping up counter-terrorism efforts. In one remote village, a simple but much needed water pump is being touted as a new weapon against ISIS. The pump is expected to assist local farmers, strengthen community resilience, and establish trust in the Phillippine government.

Likewise in Indonesia, Islamist extremist organizations are destabilizing the political environment with their activities. The upcoming 2019 presidential election could reflect the societal gains these groups have made in the last several years.

The Philippines and Indonesia are two countries in which climate, nuclear, and security issues are increasingly intertwining. As regional nuclear powers continue to shape the South China Sea, governments must recognize the growing nexus and prepare for related threats.

 

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