Like the United States, China faces serious risks to its national security from climate change. From melting glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau to the effect of rising sea levels on the heavily populated Yangtze River Basin and Pearl River Delta, from record heatwaves and drought to unprecedented flooding from extreme precipitation—a range of climate hazards threaten critical Chinese civilian and military infrastructure, risk domestic political instability, including in already restive regions of the country, and challenge Chinese geopolitical interests abroad.
China’s senior leadership appears to recognize climate change as a national security threat. Under Xi Jinping, China has adopted a broad concept of national security that encompasses internal and external, traditional and non-traditional threats. It is unclear, however, the extent to which ecological and climate security topics have permeated Chinese military strategy and doctrine, though public documents and statements provide some indications that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is at least considering these climate implications.
The physical impacts of climate change will create national security vulnerabilities for China, particularly as they intersect with other trends and developments. These vulnerabilities can be organized into three general categories. First are direct risks to military and critical infrastructure, such as coastal shipyards, islands in the South China Sea, railways and energy infrastructure built on permafrost, and the highly populated southern river deltas. Second, are compounding risks to internal political stability, as climate change threatens food and water security across the country. Third are external risks, as climate change increases competition over shared resources and amplifies tensions with neighbors, many of whom are even more exposed than China to climate impacts.
The Chinese Response
China’s approach to climate security risks largely mirrors its approach to other perceived major challenges: first, the country is pursuing extensive infrastructure and public works interventions while boosting its disaster response capabilities, including in the military. At the same time, the government is attempting to muzzle or minimize public critiques or concerns. Meanwhile, on the international front, Beijing is trying to take advantage of the issue to advance its position vis-à-vis its neighbors and in competition with the United States by casting itself as a leader and partner on climate concerns on the world stage.
China is often credited with better integrating a long-term approach to its strategic planning than countries in the West. Certainly, aspects of its climate response appear ahead of the curve: investing in icebreakers for the Arctic, positioning itself to dominate the market for critical minerals and clean energy infrastructure, and developing detailed, decades-long adaptation and mitigation strategies. Despite this foresight, there are still uncertainties regarding the trajectory of China’s approach to the security implications of climate change, including tensions between politics and strategic planning and the adequacy of its adaptation strategies, which are largely focused on hard physical infrastructure projects.
Recommendations for the United States
Given these dynamics, there are a number of implications for US foreign and defense analysis and policy toward China. Overall, the US government should aim to mainstream the range of climate considerations into its China analysis and policy. Additionally, US policy toward China should reflect the conclusion in the Biden Administration National Security Strategy that competition with China is intertwined with the US ability to tackle shared transnational threats like climate change. Specific recommendations include:
- Build a better understanding of China’s physical climate risks: As the US national security community invests in better data and predictive capabilities related to climate change, it should focus a significant portion of these investments in geographies of primary national security concern such as China and the greater Indo-Pacific.
- Leverage forecasting tools to explore key uncertainties vis-à-vis China’s climate security response: While better data on China’s physical climate hazards is a good starting point, such data must be married with analysis of the less certain dynamics that will shape security risks in the coming decades. This is where the use of forecasting tools such as wargaming, tabletop exercises, and scenarios planning can help US policymakers and practitioners.
- Create A ‘Whole-of-Government’ China-Climate Security Working Group: US officials focused on China will craft more effective policies not only by integrating better data and findings from the forecasting exercises outlined above, but also by engaging regularly with experts across the US government in different sectors and agencies. Such engagement can also drive research agendas in scientific agencies and inform the policy approaches of climate negotiators.
- Prioritize climate adaptation and resilience programs for Indo-Pacific allies and partners: To distinguish itself as the ‘partner of choice’ for the region and to ensure Indo-Pacific countries are resilient to climate hazards, the United States should make a more significant investment in adaptation programs and climate finance. Key actions include fully funding the President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (PREPARE), which calls for $3 billion annually for adaptation by FY2024.
- Explore areas of mutual climate security interest with China: Climate-driven instability in China may have ripple effects that negatively impact US national security, such as interruption of supply chains, regional instability, or more aggressive Chinese behavior over shared resources. The United States should look for opportunities—beyond emissions reductions negotiations—for potential cooperation with China in addressing such risks, including sharing best practices in adaptation and resilience measures or collaborating on HA/DR exercises.
Direct inquiries to: Andrew Facini, afacini [at] csrisks.org
Cover image: A satellite image of Dazhou Island, a state-level nature reserve located about 5 km off the coast of Wanning, Hainan, China. Image courtesy CNES/Airbus via Google.