By Evan Barnard
2021 is a critical year for multilateral climate security dialogue, with climate change as a prominent topic at high-level fora including the Munich Security Conference and the United Nations Security Council. Security leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will participate in the upcoming IISS Shangri-La Dialogue and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in June. The Shangri-La Dialogue will include a session on the defense implications of environmental and human security.
Today, we are sharing the first in a series of interviews related to the recent Asia regional reports released by the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS). This particular interview examines the report Climate Security and the Strategic Energy Pathway in Southeast Asia. The report includes an overview of resource availability, conflict, and economic activity in Southeast Asia with expert advice for managing climate security in the region.
On the eve of the U.S.-hosted Leaders Summit on Climate, I discussed climate security challenges and potential remedies for Southeast Asia with Rachel Fleishman. Ms. Fleishman is a senior fellow for Asia-Pacific at the Center for Climate and Security and Asia-Pacific liaison at IMCCS. She began her career in national security policy, working in nuclear arms control. At the Pentagon, Ms. Fleishman worked for the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Environmental Security, where she helped conceive and build the Pentagon’s international environmental security program in the 1990s when military and security issues began diversifying from nuclear proliferation. She currently advises businesses and non-profits on climate change and circular economy issues at Insight Sustainability.
In our conversation, Ms. Fleishman recommends that militaries prepare for climate change by stress-testing and updating operational capabilities. She also suggests setting up ASEAN-level climate security watch centers to analyze and predict climate extremes and other environmental security trends. Joint military readiness in the region with local integration could help Southeast Asian countries prepare for climate security challenges and more effectively conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster response missions. As the effects of climate change become more pronounced in the region, these missions will comprise an increasing proportion of military operations.
In Southeast Asia, China casts a long shadow over resource scarcity. In the South China Sea, China has adopted a philosophy claiming up to 90 percent of the Sea, with maritime territorial claims extending to subsea resources including oil and gas reserves and fisheries. As a result of China’s fierce defense of its claimed natural resources, Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam are meeting the Chinese in instances of armed confrontation. China also controls the headwaters of the Mekong River, which provides much of the freshwater for the Southeast Asia region. When China builds dams on the Mekong, it limits the flow of water to the region. ASEAN could prioritize prevention of economic tensions and develop conflict management mechanisms, including for marine-based conflicts.
Ms. Fleishman proposes that security threats will be augmented if significant carbon emission reduction efforts are not made in the near-term. In a region that trades and runs on predominantly fossil fuel energy resources, emissions reduction will be a tall task. Nuclear energy is a geopolitically-charged potential option, as any Southeast Asian country interested in nuclear energy will need to secure a multi-decadal relationship with a current nuclear power leader, cementing foreign influence. However, with sea level rise, subsidence, and more frequent and extreme severe weather, future climatic conditions might inhibit nuclear power plants in some coastal locations. She recommends that leaders consider their constituencies, as specific populations in the region lack the resources necessary for climate change resilience.
According to Ms. Fleishman, energy policy makers and security analysts need to jointly develop situational awareness. Building an understanding of the energy-climate security nexus should take place at both the regional and national security levels. CSR will soon share a conversation that closely examines climate security threats and factors in South Asia. We hope these conversations will connect the dots on climate security dynamics in South and Southeast Asia.