Security in a drier age (2)

In the second segment of a three-part article on water in China, Scott Moore argues that new levels of diplomacy will be needed to stave off regional tension.

It is clear that water-related climate impacts spill over China’s borders, increasing the importance of water issues in China’s foreign and regional security poli­cies.

This concern is reflected in the attitudes of China’s neighbours. In Pakistan, for instance, officials have suggested that changes in Himalayan meltwater could devas­tate agriculture in this already fragile country. A 2008 study from the Earth Policy Institute makes clear the heavy dependence of vast numbers of people on agriculture fed by glacial meltwater and an Asia Society report has similarly concluded that hydro-politics will be an increasingly potent force in Asian security.

The Mekong River system presents particular challenges for China’s security. Relations between China and its downstream neighbours in the Mekong basin have long been fragile. This situation is likely to be exacerbated by the construction of several dams in Chinese territory, which restrict flow to downstream nations. If, as climate models suggest, water flow to the Mekong becomes more vari­able under climate change, China’s “asymmetric” control of the river’s headwaters will become an issue of even greater concern to south-east Asian nations.

This power asymmetry is of special significance since research on water and con­flict suggests a high density of dams is associated with conflictive behaviour unless freshwater treaties are involved. China has steadfastly refused to join such “hard law” regimes in the Mekong region. Thus it seems reasonable to assert that China will have to improve its cooperative frameworks and increase diplomacy if it is to avoid significant tension with Mekong nations as the flow of the river changes along with the climate.

There are some signs that China’s strategic studies community is beginning to come to grips with these realities. China’s “New Security Concept”, promulgated since the late 1990s, addresses environmental and social issues, and emphasises cooperation and dialogue as a means of conducting foreign relations.

As a subset of this trend, China’s strategic studies and interna­tional relations community has devoted increasing attention to the potentially destabilising impacts of climate change. For example, citing the broadening defini­tion of security in the west, one prominent Chinese article advocates creating a special policy research group that focusses on the political and security dimensions of environmen­tal change.

Moreover, a series of western studies, including a widely-read 2004 study from the US Department of Defense, have prompted commentary within China on the possibility that climate-related resource shortages could lead to conflict or even war. Some non-official commentators have, more specifically, identified water-related conflict as a growing threat to relations between China and neighbouring countries.

Water issues have, in parallel with this commentary, become more prominent in China’s relations with some neighbours. China has in recent years con­cluded a number of agreements with countries including Russia and Kazakhstan regarding the demarcation and protection of transboundary rivers. Furthermore, the Shang­hai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), initially promoted largely as a body for expand­ing security cooperation, has begun working on water issues. The SCO’s 2004 meet­ing was devoted to water and, in 2005, the organisation signed a compact with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to broaden cooperation on water resources.

In contrast, however, the Chinese government has appeared hesitant to link cli­mate change and security at a general level. Beijing has strongly opposed United Nations efforts to connect the two by debat­ing climate change issues in the Security Council. China Daily, the country’s offi­cial English-language newspaper, editorialised that “The call for the international community to address climate change is sensible, but sensationalising it as an issue of security is conspiratorial.”

One could read this hesitancy in several ways. China’s long-standing support for the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs probably leads to suspicion of non-traditional security paradigms. In addition, it is important to view the government’s reluctance to link climate change and security in general in the context of Beijing’s determination to avoid binding greenhouse-gas emissions reductions. Nonetheless, there is substantial evidence to suggest a shift of think­ing is taking place at the domestic level, prompted in large part by the social challenges posed by a changing climate.

If at the international level Chinese officials take a dim view of linking cli­mate change and security, domestically they appear to take very seriously the conse­quences of water-related climate-change impacts. Premier Wen Jiabao, for instance, was quoted in 1998 as saying, “The survival of the Chinese nation is threatened by the country’s shortage of water.” Lin Erda, a prominent member of the Chinese Academy of Agricul­tural Sciences, has similarly called attention to the threat posed by retreat­ing glaciers, saying that these and other effects of climate change “directly threaten China’s food security”.

The winter drought of 2008 to 2009 also indicated the government’s concern for water issues, with state media reporting in its wake that “Agriculture is a top government priority.”

Several of China’s most strategically important regions are predicted to suffer sig­nificant water resource shortages as a result of climate change. Some 23% of China’s population lives in western regions, where glacial meltwater provides the principal dry season water source, and as glaciers melt, water will become increas­ingly scarce.

One study blames climate change for causing a decrease in stream flow during the summer months. This induces de­sertification, which, exacerbated by population growth, has imposed serious socio­economic costs on an already poor area. Such impacts are particularly significant since these western regions are not only impoverished but also the most restive in China, being home to ethnic minorities who have long mounted challenges to Bei­jing’s rule.

Changes in water availability in China’s north-west can pose security challenges in two primary ways. First, competition over scarce resources can exacerbate existing tensions between China’s majority Han ethnic group and minority groups such as Tibetans and Uyghurs. As a 2009 Asia Society report concluded, “One could certainly foresee the potential for conflict as urbanisation and industry begin to deplete al­ready scarce water supplies, particularly if certain Han-run businesses are perceived to be receiving favourable treatment in water resource allotment.”

Second, water scarcity could increase the number of “environmental refugees” – a well established concept in Chinese discourse that describes the internal migration of people to regions where resources seem more plentiful – from the north-west, potentially inflaming ethnic tensions as they seek opportunity elsewhere in China.

Sociological studies have found that an increasing number of farmers in Gansu province are abandoning their lands as a result of declining water resources. Similar phenomena have been described in Tibet, where a variety of challenges are inducing higher rates of out-migration of ethnic Tibetans.

The danger posed by such “environmental refugees” is that they may be deprived of the means to sustain livelihoods in their new homes. Research has indicated that gradual environmental deterioration affects the very poor disproportionately; al­ready bereft of resources, they have little capacity to re-establish themselves elsewhere. Arable land is scarce in China, and environmental refugees, pulled away from their livelihoods and kinship networks, often face great diffi­culty setting up new livelihoods when forced to resettle. This prospect is particularly notable because, while the concept of “environmental refugees” is well established in Chinese academia, relatively little attention is devoted to potential domestic impacts.

Scott Moore is a graduate student at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute and previously held a Fulbright Fellowship at the College of Environmental Science and Engineering, Peking University.

An earlier version of this article was published in China Security in 2009 as “Climate Change, Water, and China’s National Interest”, Vol.5, No.3. It is used here with permission.

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