This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

US withdrawal from political leadership on climate issues may further erode the country’s influence in the Asia-Pacific, a major climate security conference has heard. Regional powers could be left to form new multilateral relationships that address the climate change threat, the event’s keynote speaker said.

The concerns were raised at a conference held by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo on 12 July. It took place against a backdrop of unprecedented rainfall, leading to floods and landslides that killed 225 people.

At the same time, Japan is encountering mixed signals on the intentions and dependability of one of its closest allies. Yoichi Kato of the Asia Pacific Initiative told the conference that without reliable US leadership, countries such as Japan must reach out to other middle-power countries in order to mitigate climate-related threats, which must be managed through multilateral cooperation, with or without the United States. Kato warned that this new alliance-building could shift the region away from US primacy and toward a more multipolar leadership structure, with climate risk management acting as a catalyst.

US still engaged

Despite the White House’s ambivalence on the issue, climate change is still being addressed in US Department of Defense policy and strategic planning, maintaining the department’s ability to prepare for this high-probability, high-impact security threat.

Furthermore, senior US military leaders, supported by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have continued to publicly affirm climate change as a threat to US national security, as has the intelligence community under the leadership of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

This should reassure Japan as it seeks to understand and manage climate security risks in the Asia-Pacific. It is by no means the only country doing so. In May 2018, the Australian Senate completed a year-long inquiry into the implications of climate change for national security, concluding that it presents a “current and existential national security risk”.

Climate change was repeatedly raised at the 2018 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, including in remarks by the Japanese, French, Australian, German, New Zealand and Indonesian defence ministers.

These countries recognize that as climate change accelerates it will shape the region’s major strategic challenges. These include a host of maritime security issues such as contested boundary delimitation, piracy, and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

The strategic value of islands in Oceania is also shifting, as China seeks to strengthen its ‘second island chain’.

Nuclear weapons states India and Pakistan face worrying projected climate impacts, and states with significant climate hazard exposure, including Vietnam, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos and Malaysia, are exploring or moving toward establishing or expanding nuclear programmes as part of their Paris Climate Agreement commitments.

Uncertain geostrategic consequences

The nature of Japan’s long-term partnership with the US, and China’s relative power and relationships with its neighbours, are difficult to foresee with any accuracy. But there is a much higher degree of certainty around climate impacts, such as how far sea level will rise in 30, 40 and 50 years, and the consequences of these changes for Asia’s coasts, cities and economic growth.

Just as new weather extremes seem to be catching governments off-guard month by month, there is increasing awareness across the Asia-Pacific that the security dimensions of climate change will affect the strategic context in unexpected ways. The effect of changing US climate policy on the region’s shifting geostrategic picture may be one such example.

However, there is good news.

Progress is being made at regional and international levels including at the UN Security Council, which recently held an open debate on the security implications of climate change, and within governments across the Asia-Pacific. It is time to build on this progress to ensure that the region is prepared for the security implications of climate change, and that all interested nations are at – or come back to – the table.

Climate change threatens balance of power in the Asia-Pacific, Shiloh Fetzek, The International Institute for Strategic Studies