Last year, the Center for Climate and Security released China’s Climate Security Vulnerabilities, a report that outlined the ways in which climate hazards may shape the country’s stability and security going forward. The extreme weather events in China during the past few months provide a case study of the key dynamics identified in the paper, including risks to Chinese food security and domestic stability, as well as the role of the military in responding to such hazards. One event in particular, Typhoon Doksuri’s landfall in Fujian Province and the subsequent flooding it caused as it traveled north, illustrated such vulnerabilities with immediate and heavy impact. But the crisis caused by Doksuri provides an opening for the United States to engage with the Chinese government on climate and food security issues, as well.
Beginning in late July, Typhoon Doksuri and its remnants brought torrential rains which flooded the Chinese capital Beijing and other areas in the northeast. By one measure, the amount of rain that fell in a 5 day period in the Beijing region–29.3 inches–was the “most ever recorded since recordkeeping began during the Qing dynasty in 1883.” The water displaced millions and destroyed thousands of homes and hectares of farmland. Thousands of troops from the Chinese People’s Armed Police (PAP) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have deployed in response, providing rescue and evacuation assistance, distributing emergency supplies, and conducting a range of other activities.
Adaptation Lags, Politics Inhibits Response
China’s Climate Security Vulnerabilities noted that though China is often lauded for its long-term vision regarding climate adaptation, “the physical hazards from climate change are coming sooner, more intensely and more frequently than most climate models have predicted,” suggesting Beijing may still be caught flat-footed. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened with the extreme precipitation in late July and early August. The country’s “sponge city” strategy, in which billions of dollars’ worth of green infrastructure is meant to soak up heavy precipitation, was unequal to the historic downpours. As one expert told Bloomberg, “Water management designs under the strategy were based on rainfall levels in the 30 years prior to 2014.” In other words, the “sponge cities” were not designed for today’s extreme events, much less the ones of the future.
Another challenge for China identified in the paper was the country’s tension between competence and politics–China often has comprehensive, well-designed emergency response plans on paper, but the country’s authoritarian politics can get in the way of implementing such responses. For example, in the wake of the recent flooding, NPR reports that some local rescue teams have been waiting for invitation letters before deploying due to Chinese regulations, yet the official seal for the invitations were lost in the flood. Similarly, as the Washington Post reported, “Before Xi Jinping, China’s powerful leader, ordered action on flood control and relief Aug. 1, local officials in Beijing and Hebei ‘didn’t dare take charge,’ said Wang Weiluo, an engineer and expert on China’s water systems.”
Domestic Instability and Food Security Concerns
Our report noted that climate change would compound risks of domestic instability in China. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of the most recent floods, Premier Li Qiang called on local authorities to focus on “maintaining the stability of the society in their response.” Our paper identified “controlling public response and perceptions” as a primary coping mechanism for China in the wake of such disasters. Notably, Chinese social media posts have made some oblique critiques of President Xi Jinping’s handling of the floods, but many posts seen as critical of the government have been deleted.
The floods caused by Doksuri will further strain Chinese food security. Three of the hardest-hit provinces—Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning—form what is known as “China’s granary” and are responsible for one-fifth of the country’s grain output. This comes after record heatwaves in June and July that stunted young crops such as soybeans and corn, as well as what local officials described as “the most destructive rain event” in a decade for wheat crops in Henan Province. Farmers in northeast China are posting videos on social media begging for help in managing the after-effects of the flooding, including the risk of pests. One goat and egg farmer who lost the majority of his livestock due to the flooding told NBC news, “I really want to die.”
Underscoring the potential instability risks, James Palmer of Foreign Policy notes an increasing rural/urban divide as the government responds to these disasters. He reports on frustration in rural provinces that were forced to evacuate as floodwaters were diverted from further inundating Beijing. This comes amidst existing local anger at the heavy-handed actions of the Rural Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement Brigade, who were caught in viral videos earlier this year stomping on crops and spraying fields. This experience almost certainly will increase skepticism of forthcoming government responses.
Possible Opportunities for U.S.-China Engagement
As the United States monitors the ongoing Chinese response to the disaster in the coming weeks, it should look for opportunities to engage with Beijing on food security concerns in particular. As we argued in our report, “Climate-driven instability in China may have ripple effects that negatively impact US national security” including, “…more aggressive Chinese behavior over shared resources.” In this case, the destruction of staple grain crops in China will almost certainly increase domestic food prices, already high in part due to grain export bans in India, Russia and the UAE. Food security is a top priority for President Xi and the Chinese government will do everything it can to manage prices and domestic food access.
Early, proactive engagement on food security concerns by the United States and the international community could help prevent panic buying by China on the already volatile global grain market, and reduce the risk of further shocks to the international food system. It is important to note that the Chinese will almost certainly want to be approached as partners, not victims in need of U.S. assistance. It is clear from the public relations push from the Chinese military and leaders to highlight rescues and responses in the past few weeks that it is important to Beijing to be seen as successfully managing this crisis.
Beyond food security, there may be limited opportunities to engage with China on disaster response best practices as well, potentially in international or multilateral fora. Given the unfortunate ubiquity and universality of climate driven hazards in recent years, as we argued in our paper, “…there may be opportunities for sharing best practices in adaptation and resilience measures, particularly at the city-to-city level or via private-sector relationships. The U.S. could also consider reinvigorating collaborative HA/DR exercises with China, provided sensitive U.S. military information and equipment can be adequately protected.”
The hard truth, however, is that no amount of adaptation and resilience will help manage the climate threats of the future if equal attention is not paid to cutting emissions. Certainly this is a message that the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry and other U.S. leaders have repeatedly emphasized in their engagements with their Chinese counterparts. Ultimately, however, whether the threats to stability and security in China posed by this summer’s extreme precipitation and flooding will help speed the Chinese Government’s commitment to the energy transition is a question only they can answer.