National security and the climate crisis – China is still not joining the dots
By Arnaud Boehmann
Beijing has resisted “securitizing” the fight to stop global warming. This strategic short-sightedness may be undermining China's longer-term military ambitions.
In July 2022, the US Navy lost ten helicopters to a sudden storm which hit Norfolk Naval Base, one of a growing number of climate-related incidents to hit armed forces around the world. As damage increasingly threatens core areas of traditional security, countries like the US, Britain and France are looking at global warming’s security dimension and developing climate strategies for the military. These address the impact of a heating climate on the armed forces and their role in mitigating climate change. China, however, remains conspicuously inactive.
The so-called securitization of climate change traces its origins back to the 1980s and began to gain a significant foothold in security discourse in the late 2000s. Translated into action, military climate-security of course involves lowering emissions – but also adapting material and personnel to changing operational environments, shoring up of military installations to deal with new climate impacts and adjusting the profiles of military mission, for example, soldiers being needed more frequently for humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR).
Beijing still sees climate change mainly as an economic and development issue
China sees climate change not as a national-security issue, but as a problem to be solved by economic development (the country is the world’s biggest polluter and a leader in renewable energy). Xi Jinping in 2017 told the 19th Party Congress that climate change was an “unconventional security threat like terrorism, cyber-insecurity, [and] major infectious diseases”. But internationally, China is against the securitization of climate change. During a UN Security Council meeting in December 2021, Ambassador Zhang Jun reiterated this stance.
As Xi’s words in 2017 show, the lack of action on the part of China’s political and military leadership does not stem from a lack of information. Under Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) established an expert commission on climate change in 2008 (though nothing has been heard of it since). From the early 2000s, Chinese intellectuals and even military officials debated climate security and reached largely similar conclusions to their Western counterparts – namely, that climate change is a concern for national security.
This kind of discourse, though often abstract, has found its way into policy documents and comes up in publications like the People’s Liberation Army – Daily (解放军报). However, it has never reached the mainstream nor informed military policy. Xi’s idea of “comprehensive national security” of 2014, the 2019 defence white paper, the 2020 Science of Military Strategy and the white paper on 30 Years of UN Peacekeeping Operations do not address the security dimension of climate change (though some mention it with reference to the arctic).
In practice, the PLA has already been deployed in climate mitigation efforts domestically, to plant trees. Desertification and pollution have been a widely recognized issue. As part of the “war on pollution” declared by Premier Li Keqiang in 2014, 60,000 PLA infantry soldiers were deployed to plant trees in 2018. Military aircraft have reportedly also been used to scatter seeds in China’s decades-long efforts make the Gobi Desert and other tracts of barren land fertile. The PLA is also frequently called upon to help fight domestic environmental disasters.
But China has not explicitly recognized that climate change and national security are linked. It lacks an overarching strategy, a decarbonisation plan, the right institutions, as well as dedicated doctrine, technology, procurement, and training. As things stand, the PLA could be the last Chinese institution to be decarbonised. Is Beijing hesitant because of the financial cost in tough economic times? Or is it the trade-off between “green” modernization and warfighting ability? An army anticipating armed conflict is probably best not distracted.
China’s lack of climate security could limit its ability to project power in Asia
China’s lack of institutional climate-security awareness will have an impact on Asia’s security architecture and on Beijing’s great power competition with Washington. Barring climate change, three of Xi’s four non-conventional security threats have been thoroughly securitized – even excessively, given human-rights issues. The securitization of “terrorism” has led to the establishment of the Xinjiang Camps; IT infrastructure has been fortified and its offensive capabilities increased; and the pandemic led to the draconian zero-Covid policy.
China’s failure to securitize climate change and its lack of preparation come at a strategic cost. In 2018, for example, the US Air Force’s Tyndall Air Base was devastated by Hurricane Michael and the US Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune hit hard by Hurricane Florence. If Chinese installations in the South China Sea were hit by extreme weather in a similar way, the strategic landscape of the region could change within a day. China’s HADR capabilities are big, but may prove insufficient if not strategically developed. Meanwhile military emissions remain untackled.
What is ultimately at stake is China’s ability to project power – the possibility that the PLA may end up bogged with domestic HADR missions, see its ability to provide aid and relief in its wider region of interest in the Indo-Pacific curtailed and even have insufficient resources to fight a war. How China decides to address climate change in the field of security will be a measure of how far its military strategic foresight reaches. Action or inaction on climate security could signal where its military priorities lie – and how soon it wants to reach them.
About the author:
Arnaud Boehmann is an independent sinologist and security analyst who interned with MERICS' Foreign Relations Team from April to June 2022. He holds a B.A. in Sinology and Sociology from the University of Hamburg and an M.Sc. in Strategic Studies from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Arnaud studied Chinese in Hamburg, Chengdu and Xinxiang.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily reflect those of the Mercator Institute for China Studies.