The Philippines has long been a self-described staunch ally of the United States. This alliance is critical for the U.S., particularly as the Philippines straddles the South China Sea, a place of huge strategic significance for global security (see the recent CNAS report, Cooperation from Strength: The United States, China and the South China Sea). Essentially, the Sea presents a test of U.S. power and influence. The degree to which the U.S. and its allies in the area, including Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, control the trading routes that pass through the Sea and the resources that lie under it, is a measure of how strong the U.S. is in the Asia-Pacific, and vis-a-vis a rising China. In this context, the security of the Philippines, from a conflict and humanitarian perspective, is very important to the United States.
Climate change may present a challenge to that security, and more research needs to be done to explore exactly how. A recent conference convened by International Alert, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, EU Brussels, and the AIM Centre for Development Management, assessed the potential security risks of climate change to the country (and the broader region), concluding:
…more capacity is needed to recognise and understand the linkages between climate change and conflict. For this, there needs to be more locally grounded research into the issue, but also more awareness-raising campaigns and dissemination of information.
However, given existing projections for climate change in the Philippines, as well as observed temperature and rainfall changes, particularly in the north and south, the U.S. and its allies should not wait for 100% certainty before acting to build the country’s resilience to climate change, and any security breakdowns that might be accelerated by it (whether that involves food, water or energy security). Even relatively modest investments in climate-proofed infrastructure and governance would go a long way in decreasing the Philippine’s vulnerability. This presents a possible win-win-win. The United States and its allies could advance their overall objective of maintaining influence and strengthening their alliances in the region in a way that does not overtly challenge China’s perceived sphere of influence (which according to a new Chatham House report, is an important imperative), the Philippines would be in a better position to adapt to observed and future climatic changes, and China would find little need to feel threatened by these investments.
In short, investing in concrete programs to address the impacts of climate change in the Philippines is an action that simultaneously serves core U.S. strategic interests, and the well-being of the Philippines. While a recently-passed resolution in the U.S. Congress calls for “increased defense and security cooperation with the Philippines,” particularly as it relates to humanitarian relief, this cooperation will need to be resilient to the current and future impacts of climate change.