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China and Ecological Security: The seeds of conflict, or the roots of détente?

By Michael R. Zarfos

As China and the United States continue to compete in many domains, ecological security may be an opportunity for cooperation. China’s impact on ecological security internally and externally can either be a geopolitical liability or a source of legitimacy. Together, these titanic countries could spur a reformation of global governance around agriculture, and trade in wild animals and plants. Such cooperation could improve food security and resilience while boosting sustainability and combating the climate and biodiversity crises–not to mention reducing the possibility of regional or global conflict.

All Ecological Insecurity is Global

The Council on Strategic Risks recently published a briefer analyzing the security implications of  biotic eruptions such as invasive pests and harmful algal blooms. The research underlying that work highlighted a potentially consequential interdependency between global food supply and food demand in China. A global shortage could undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) domestic legitimacy, while a production shortfall or stockpiling in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could lead to higher global food prices and shortages in other countries. Just as the United States’ gigantic economy has impacted the planet for the past century, so too must China’s combination of an enormous economy and population impact the planet today. Each of these countries has an outsized influence on the planet’s ecological security. 

Since some experts have posited that domestic turmoil in China could influence its foreign policy–perhaps even leading it into regional conflict–it is worth considering some of the ways that China has undermined its own ecological security. Environmental pollution in China and its reductions to environmental quality have been considerable. Soil contamination, desertification, freshwater pollution, marine ecosystem collapse, and dangerous air quality may undermine food production, the supply of potable water, and public health. Invasive pests and diseases that flow into China through trade and travel will increasingly undermine food production and ecosystems domestically. 

Just as ecological security in China may impact geopolitics, so too might China’s impact on ecological security beyond its borders. When the PRC undermines other’s ecological security directly, or through negative externalities, it may unintentionally sow its own geopolitical opposition. China’s domestic and international environmental policies and ecological impacts can strengthen or undermine its diplomatic relationships and public perception. Consider how China might impact ecological security externally:

  • Capital goods, imported as manufacturing inputs, export environmental damage to the countries further down the value chain; China is among the largest importers of capital goods.  
  • China is amongst the largest fishing nations, and its fleets are often implicated in “Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU)” fishing across the world’s oceans. 
  • As is noted above, China has not achieved food self-sufficiency and so has an important influence on global production and food prices. This also makes it vulnerable to global food supply shocks. 
  • There is considerable regional concern over China’s damming of major transboundary rivers which directly undermines the security of downstream countries (e.g. freshwater access, agricultural outputs, energy production, and more). 
  • China’s domestic production of waste, agricultural runoff, industrial pollution, and energy production (largely from coal) all likely contribute to transboundary air and water pollution impacting its neighbors in Asia.

Two Big Fish in a Small Pond

Some quip that when the US sneezes, the world catches a cold. Today, the same can be said of China. Both China and the US have an outsized impact on the global environment (e.g., with a combined share of global CO2  emissions in 2017 of over 40%), economy (e.g., combined share of global GDP in PPP of over 30%), and geopolitics (e.g., over 50% of global military spending). Yet in many policy circles they are seen as diametrically opposed in terms of domestic political systems, values, and visions for a world order. By some estimates, humanity currently needs about two earth’s worth of resources to sustain itself. Perhaps the US and China could find common ground in an effort to rebalance global production and consumption in a way that does not inherently undermine their security and that of the planet.

The Big Fish Can Get Along

There may be several opportunities for the US and China to cooperate in reforming global governance to achieve ecological security.

First, China and the US could cooperate to reform food, wood, and fiber production, and the trade in wildlife and plants globally. Such reforms could ensure a sustainable supply of what is needed while reducing negative externalities from agriculture, competition for food, and illicit harvest. For example, the US produces many crops to feed livestock domestically (such as corn for beef) and abroad (soy for pork raised in China). By adjusting the ratios of what is being produced (shifting to more plant-based diets), these partners could emphasize caloric efficiency and reduce the amount of farmland under cultivation. This change would allow for the restoration and conservation of more ecosystems to the benefit of biodiversity, societal resilience, and carbon sequestration.  

Further, these centers of agricultural expertise and finance could also join forces to help farmers and foresters globally to change their production and harvest methods and the species or varieties produced. Such changes could be targeted at avoiding the yield reductions that could result from climate change and new diseases and pests. 

Likewise, China and the US could share tools and practices that would enhance environmental monitoring and restoration in lower income countries. Given their own vulnerability to species introductions, China and the US could also support research and monitoring networks to combat the spread and impacts of these species and diseases globally. 


This brief analysis highlights three overarching themes regarding the importance of ecological security to China’s domestic politics, international relations, and the prospect of global unity or conflict:

  1. The CCP is vulnerable to domestic environmental pollution (air, water, and soil) and the potential for global food supply or price shocks related to invasive pests, disease, and environmental degradation. 
  2. The PRC undermines other countries’ ecological security through its demand for fish, rare plant and animal parts, water (damming rivers), and raw materials. These negative externalities undermine its global standing. 
  3. Aside from climate, the US and China (as some of the largest consumers, producers, and financiers) could cooperate in revamping global food, fiber, and timber production away from demand for inefficient, high emission products, with the goal of increasing overall food and resource security, lowering emissions, and boosting biodiversity. 

Instead of letting ecological insecurity feed the tension between China and its Indo-Pacific neighbors, the US and PRC should make achieving global ecological security the basis for a newly cooperative relationship. As the planet grows more crowded, and rates of consumption increase, the solutions to ecosystem disruption will increasingly require coalitions of states whose self interest is indivisible from the global interest.

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