The words of vice Admiral Tian Zhong, Commander of the North Sea Fleet, People’s Liberation Army Navy of China were: “The 21st century is a century of the ocean. No country can achieve advances in civilization without the ocean.”
Zhong spoke at the Future Maritime Operations Conference: The Utility of Navies in an Interconnected World, on July 7th at Whitehall, an event of the Royal United Services Institute, one of the UK’s leading defense and military think tanks.
He was talking about the business of naval forces in foreseeing and preparing to respond to changing national security threats: the sovereignty of nations over territories and strategic resources, and increasingly non-traditional threats like terrorism and maritime piracy. But one should read vice Admiral Tian Zhong’s words in the broader context of the challenge of sustainability of the oceans. The goal of the ocean agenda being developed by the Earth Security Initiative is to bridge these two agendas.
For starters, Asian nations are being rallied to work together to ‘fight’ rising sea levels. Almost half of Asia’s population lives within 100 kilometres of a coastal ecosystem. So their protection must have something to do with national security. Adam Moser, for example, just wrote on the China Environmental Governance blog that marine ecosystem protection is key to adapting to a warmer world, ocean acidification and rising sea levels. All this matters to the future of the UK’s naval partnerships.
So this is perhaps why the speech delivered by Chris Huhne, the UK’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change at this conference on maritime operations was titled ‘The Geopolitics of Climate Change‘. The speech, targeted to the UK military community, touched upon the increased threat of wars, violence and military action against the UK and UK interests abroad as food, water, energy and health risks are amplified around the world. A commentary by the UK’s Special Envoy on Climate and Energy Security, Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, describes how the UK Army is preparing to respond to climate change by reviewing its operations and reducing its own carbon footprint.
There are a number of win-win opportunity that we are beginning to explore, which could address some of the geopolitical interest to the UK Navy with regards to climate change, while supporting their leadership to ensure greater ‘climate peace’:
- First, there will be geopolitical implications and territorial conflicts due to rising sea levels. The UN Convention of the Law of the Sea has not yet established how maritime boundaries should be re-drawn as vast areas of sovereign waters become ‘up for grabs’ as small island states begin to disappear. The South Pacific Ocean is a case in point, where island states abound, their sovereign waters covering extensive regions. China’s influence in its own neighbourhood will be felt, and this will undoubtedly clash with the interests of overseas territories of countries like the UK, France and the United States – and, naturally, those of Australia and New Zealand. This will have profound consequences for institutions that are pursuing large-scale Marine Protected Areas in the region as a strategy to gain greater global ecological resilience. However, they can also seize the opportunity to capture the attention of Naval forces in creating greater buy in for these protected areas, as a geopolitical strategy – perhaps following a similar cooperation model as the one created for the Antarctic.
- The Arctic is a second case in point. Arctic snow and ice are melting much faster than what has been expected by scientists. As climate change in the arctic opens up access to new mineral resources and trade routes, the resulting geopolitical tensions are being described as a new Cold War. The US military is mobilising for its ‘Arctic Ops’. The political implications of this shift for the UK are evident, and the prevailing spirit is summarised by a quote of the Russian Ambassador to NATO provided by Huhne: ‘The twenty-first century will see a fight for resources, and Russia should not be defeated in this fight … NATO has sensed where the wind comes from. It comes from the North.’ A new leadership agenda is needed to ensure that the Arctic region remains an example of international cooperation and peace, rather than a new theatre for the scramble over natural resources.
The military understands that its operating environment is changing because of environmental factors. Its response, however, presents the opportunity to build further cooperation among nations, and prevent conflict. Time is of essence, as I’ve said in a previous comment, to ensure that the military response to climate change effectively contributes to the security of people and the planet.