Indo-Pacific: Expand the idea of security
From a traditional security point of view, the climate crisis is seen as an environmental or humanitarian crisis — and, therefore, secondary in strategic calculations. However, this view is long obsolete
The Glasgow conference witnessed small island-nations, facing an existential threat from the climate crisis, asserting themselves. This played a role in pushing countries across the world to commit to a global temperature rise of 1.5 degree Celsius, in keeping with the Paris agreement.
However, the inequity at the heart of the global challenge was reflected in the outcome. The resources, capital, capabilities, and technology to mitigate the crisis lie primarily with developed nations, even as the smaller islands face, most acutely, its consequences. The former are reluctant to do their bit, despite their historical responsibility in contributing to the crisis.
Given that some of these island-nations are at the heart of intensified global geopolitical competition, the inability to deal with climate issues will have clear implications for security in the Indo-Pacific.
From a traditional security point of view, the climate crisis is seen as an environmental or humanitarian crisis — and, therefore, secondary in strategic calculations. However, this view is long obsolete.
A rise in sea levels will have a direct impact on traditional security and military preparedness for various reasons. To start with, all naval bases and key military facilities are located on coasts across the globe. Some of the most strategic locations and geography for naval competition such as Okinawa, Andaman and Nicobar, Guam, Ascension and Diego Garcia are all islands — each directly susceptible to the climate crisis. A rise in sea levels can submerge the Maldives, and possibly wash away parts of Diego Garcia and the Andamans. The disappearance of key islands and submerged coasts impact both commercial and military movements, priorities and geostrategic competition in the world.
As a response to both the climate crisis as well as the need to developing a maritime-based economy, island-nations and coastal states have been enthusiastic about the opportunities provided by the concept of a blue economy.
A blue economy essentially aims to identify and tap into the economic benefits of the oceans. This requires an understanding of the potential of the oceans and seas and how they can contribute toward national wealth and economic growth. A blue economy consists of sectors such as fisheries, maritime transport, tourism, waste management and renewable energy among others. At its core is the idea of sustainable use of the oceans and seas.
Given the vulnerable nature of the marine ecosystem, to effectively tap into this resource, nations must simultaneously protect and conserve the oceans. The economic use of the oceans and its conservation are dependent on each other, and blue economy aims to provide that balance between the two — within the larger security context.
The security competition extends to wooing the island-states. The United States (US), China, India, France and others seek to gain access and influence given the strategic locations of these island near key sea lanes of communication, and their need to secure these — both during peacetime and conflict. China’s maritime ambitions and its effort to build infrastructure through the Belt and Road Initiative is an important driver of this competition.
However, in engaging with island-nations, bigger powers often make the mistake of assuming a convergence in security concerns. How the bigger powers and smaller nations frame their security concerns often differs, and without understanding the difference in perception, collaborations and partnerships with island-nations and key littorals will remain a challenge.
While nations such as the US, India, France, Australia, Japan, among others, might define security challenges emerging from China’s activities and vice-versa, island-nations across the Indo-Pacific are united in identifying their security concerns as climate crisis, illegal fishing, drug trafficking and human smuggling. This difference in perception is crucial in both understanding the developments in the region as well as in formulating policies aimed at regional security.
The answer might not always be in competing over ports and bridges but more in helping create sustainable frameworks on disaster resilience infrastructure, provision of technical applications to mitigate disasters (such as a regional centre for typhoons, cyclones and tsunamis), developing renewable energy and monitoring illegal fishing, among others. It is not enough to have reactionary policies toward island- nations driven by the fear of China building ports and bases. There is a need to include security challenges emerging from the climate crisis in regional policy priorities within the Indo-Pacific framework.
Speaking at the inaugural islands dialogue hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, Satyendra Prasad, ambassador of Fiji to the United Nations (UN), noted that if expensive weapon systems were an option for the region, then surely, these powers could increase their climate finance commitments proportionately. Prasad was speaking in the context of AUKUS — the recently announced coalition between the US, the United Kingdom (UK) and Australia on nuclear-powered submarines — and his remarks highlighted the key differences in security priorities.
This is not to say one form of security deserves more attention than another, or to discount military capabilities and naval partnership. But it is to highlight the perspective and notions of small island-nations, who are at the centre of traditional security concerns and competition. If bigger powers of the Indo-Pacific want to have an impact and engage with smaller island-nations and littorals in the region, governments across this theatre will have to start listening, and find creative ways in addressing both sets of security challenges with the resources available.
Darshana M Baruah is an associate fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, where she leads the Indian Ocean initiative
The views expressed are personal