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New Report: The United States, the South China Sea, Natural Resources and Climate Change

After a long transition, and winter break (a strange one, to be sure – the daffodils here in DC started to emerge yesterday, and today it’s snowing…), we’re back.

And what better post-break gift than a new report from the Center for a New American Security? “Cooperation from Strength: The United States, China and the South China Sea” is a good one. You should read the whole thing. But given our focus on climate and security, we’re going to briefly highlight the section on climate change in Will Rogers’ chapter “The Role of Natural Resources in the South China Sea.”

The South China Sea is one of the most geostrategically significant parts of the world for the United States for a whole host of reasons. As the report highlights from the start:

The South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans – a mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce, accounting for $1.2 billion in U.S. trade annually. It is the demographic hub of the 21st-century global economy, where 1.5 billion Chinese, nearly 600 million Southeast Asians and 1.3 billion inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent move vital resources and exchange goods across the region and around the globe. It is an area where more than a half-dozen countries have overlapping territorial claims over a seabed with proven oil reserves of seven billion barrels as well as an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

On top of this, sovereignty over parts of the South China Sea is contested by a number of countries, including China, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

In other words, geopolitically speaking, this place is no joke. It follows that any instability, or significant change, in the region is and will be of real concern to the United States and its allies.

Enter climate change. According to Will Rogers, climate change threatens to act as an “accelerant of instability” in the area by “exacerbating environmental trends in ways that may overwhelm civil-society institutions,  and this may affect countries’ decisions involving a broad range of resources – including energy, fisheries and minerals.”

On energy, Will highlights how increases in droughts precipitated by climate change can lead to reduced hydroelectric productivity in China, which could in turn increase the incentive for China to explore fossil fuels under the South China Sea floor, including in contested areas.

On fisheries, the chapter highlights evidence, albeit not yet conclusive, that climate change will “affect fish migration in ways that could exacerbate competition in the South China Sea.” In short, warming ocean waters may cause cold-water species to decline, which is likely to “increase fishing in contested areas of the South China Sea, which may increase the number of confrontations involving fishing trawlers and worsen tensions between China and its South China Sea neighbors.”

On minerals, Will touches on the fact that China’s increased investments in renewable energy technologies in response to climate change may “increase the strategic importance of minerals and metals in the South China Sea.” This is because many green technologies are reliant on minerals that are vulnerable to Chinese supply disruptions, given China’s dominance of the “global rare earths market.” Will goes on to argue that this may “exacerbate diplomatic tensions by encouraging countries to extract more minerals from the South China Sea to protect their alternative energy supplies and to control access to these minerals in order to gain greater diplomatic leverage.”

In all, a good read on a topic that is of significant importance to the U.S. from a security perspective. Particularly as the Obama Administration continues to place a strong emphasis on the Pacific in its recently unveiled defense strategy.

This is a space worth watching closely.


  1. […] example, climate change threatens to indirectly upset the balance of competing interests in the South China Sea, an area of critical geostrategic importance to the United States, where according to  a report […]

  2. […] to other resources of the sea. In this instance, climate change and ocean acidification, which can impact fish migrations and lead to further disputes, are additional stresses on an already volatile […]

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