Will great powers in the Indo-Pacific finally bring tides of good fortune? Or will they play King of the Hill on the watery graves of island nations?
By: Julian Anderson
“tell them about the water
how we have seen it rising
flooding across our cemeteries
gushing over the sea walls
and crashing against our homes
tell them what it’s like
to see the entire ocean__level___with the land
we are afraid.”
From Tell Them, by Kathy Jetnil Kijiner, Marshallese poet and activist
Unfortunately, Kijiner’s poem is not about Atlantis, or the Hollywood blockbuster Waterworld. It’s the real story of more than 14 island nations across the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Sea level rise has put these island nations on the front lines of the fight against climate change. But even as island nations like Tuvalu are literally sinking into the sea, the narrative around Indo-Pacific security has been dominated by great power competition and strategic rivalry. What gives?
For decades, island nations’ pleas for more aid to combat the growing problem of climate change have fallen on deaf ears. This is despite overwhelming evidence that sea levels could rise between 1.5 and three feet by 2100. While sea level rise by as much as 6.5 feet is possible, even three feet is sufficient to drown 77 percent of the land area of the Maldives and 66 percent of Kiribati. Combined with other threatened island nations, around three million Pacific islanders would likely need to relocate before the end of the century. However, it’s not some distant future. Three islands have already disappeared beneath the waves in recent years, including one in Kiribati.
The reality for small island nations is grim. Sea level rise doesn’t have to submerge islands to kill them. Even if the worst case scenario for sea level rise doesn’t come to pass, damaged food crops, contaminated freshwater, unstable infrastructure, and more intense storms will render them uninhabitable. To prevent this, island nations from the Marshall Islands to the Maldives are attempting to build seawalls and shore up their coasts. But seawall construction is extremely costly, especially for countries that are already losing between 5-20 percent of their GDP every year from of the effects of climate change. Innovative projects to reinforce shorelines and build resilience are underway, but without further investment and aid, the only thing they will be is underwater. If the islands disappear, so will the many unique cultures, traditions, peoples, and ways of life that call the islands home.
Geography of the Indo-Pacific Islands
But climate change isn’t just a threat to island nations. It is the single greatest security threat to the whole region. Rising tides will bring enormous instability to the Indo-Pacific: waves of climate refugees, widespread famine, and massive political upheaval will exacerbate geopolitical competition. A United Nations report indicates the Indo-Pacific could see up to 89 million climate refugees. Additionally, 200 million people are likely to starve because of depleted fish stocks threatened by floods, ocean acidification, and coral reef destruction. But politicians won’t be safe, either. The capital cities of Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City), Philippines (Manila), Thailand (Bangkok), and Indonesia (Jakarta) will all see areas underwater by 2050. Jakarta, a megacity of over 30 million people, is actually the fastest sinking city in the world at a rate of up to 11 inches per year, and efforts to save it are likely doomed. But that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg. More than 56 cities with populations greater than 1 million lie in low-level coastal zones that will be inundated by sea level rise. The economic effects will be devastating as the world economy could lose more than 18% of current GDP by 2048. The economic damage to the Indo-Pacific will likely be even more severe. This network of crises will compound into a cyclone of instability worse than any potential saber-rattling between the U.S. and China. Yet, both the U.S. and China still see each other as the greatest security threat, instead of the worst impending disaster in human history.
The common belief that climate change is not a security issue, or that it’s only relevant to small island nations, could not be more wrong. Sea level rise will fundamentally alter the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific in ways that we cannot possibly foresee. Already, Washington and Beijing’s policies towards Indo-Pacific affairs are being forced to deal with this reality — but not for the reasons you might think.
In recent years, island nations have received more attention, aid, and investment from the U.S. than ever before. This development is something of a sea change for island nations, whose needs for adaptation and mitigation have been overlooked for decades. In 2019, the Trump administration sent U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a high-profile visit to the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), committed over $100 million in new assistance, and pledged to expand USAID staff in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the FSM, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Palau. The Biden administration expanded the trend, announcing $600 million of funding to tackle illegal fishing and climate change at the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) in July 2022, and launching a new $810 million Pacific Partnership Strategy in September 2022, which includes $22 million for climate change resilience and ocean and weather data collection. Why the sudden change in policy, if party politics has nothing to do with it?
One word: China.
Greater investment by the United States in the Indo-Pacific region is part of the new Indo-Pacific Strategy designed to counter China’s growing influence. The U.S., however, is late to the party. China provided more annual aid to Pacific island nations every year than the U.S. between 2010 and 2019. In 2016, China outspent the U.S. by over $267 million and the U.S. has only started to catch up recently.
China’s comparatively larger attention to and spending in the region has been driven by similar strategic interests. In 2014 and 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping personally visited Pacific island countries and met with the leaders of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Samoa, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Tonga, Niue, Fiji, and others. Moreover, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi participated in a ten-day tour of the region this past June. These high-profile visits signal strong diplomatic and political investment in the region, which have been paired with generous economic aid packages. Between 2006 and 2017, China provided about $1.5 billion in foreign aid to Pacific island countries. If the recent signing of a security pact between China and the Solomon Islands is any indication, President Xi’s efforts have borne fruit.
But with the threat of China’s rise looming in policymakers’ eyes, the Indo-Pacific has become a great power sandbox — and a powder keg. China’s actions are perceived as a threat to U.S. political and military leadership in the region. Accordingly, leading U.S. Department of Defense officials described the Indo-Pacific region as the “priority theater” for U.S. engagement and identified China as the major adversary. Therefore, as argued by an article in the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, “China’s naval modernization, establishing overseas naval base, and militarization of ports represents security threats to countries in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Yet, that’s not how the Indo-Pacific island nations see it. The U.S. and China may be subsumed with zero-sum geopolitics, but for these island nations, their top priority is simply survival. Climate change is often considered a “nontraditional” security issue, prioritized below military interests. This framing has only served to undermine attention to the survival of these island nations in ways detrimental to the entire stability of the region. Armed conflict cannot be ruled out, but whichever country wins the most catastrophic game of Battleship ever cannot compare to the disaster that will unfold if sea level rise continues unabated.
The tidal increase in funding from both China and the U.S. may buoy the fortunes of these island nations, but their problems are large and the aid promised so far may prove insufficient. Nor does alignment with either China or the U.S. suit them. Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe expressed in a Reuters interview how “the last thing we want is that countries in the Pacific are used against each other or used as pawns.” Rather than getting caught in the middle, many prefer a stable Indo-Pacific order characterized by openness, inclusivity, rules-based principles, respect for sovereignty and non-interference, and multilateral governance. Yet, this kind of ideal order is contradicted by both America’s powerful military alliances in the region (aka the Quad or “Asian NATO” to China), and China’s own ambitions, which have caused the rising power to resist any attempt to articulate a rules-based order that includes the United States.
Increased investment in climate adaptation for Indo-Pacific island nations is a good sign. However, only time will tell whether this is a meaningful commitment. Ultimately, it could end up being a token symbol, weaponized to force island nations to choose sides in a conflict they want no part of. For now, neither China nor the U.S. are meeting their low-ball Paris Climate Agreement targets, let alone showing leadership on climate change. Nevertheless, climate change is the greatest threat to Indo-Pacific security, whether the two countries recognize it or not. The implications of inaction could not be more dire.