Southeast Asian climate threats are Australia’s concern

By Lachlan Melsom, Research Intern

Leaders from 200 countries will meet at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in late October to discuss plans to limit global warming. An issue of critical importance to Australia in this context, but often overlooked, is what climate change will mean for its regional neighbours in Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asian countries are expected to be among the world’s worst affected by climate change. The predicted effects within the region of a 2-3°C increase in global temperatures include the intensification of severe weather events, sea level rise causing substantial loss of agriculturally productive territory, ocean acidification causing harm to already strained fish stocks and increased flooding.

The effects of climate change have important implications for regional stability that Australia must take into consideration.

One reason for Southeast Asia’s increased vulnerability is its unique exposure to the El Niño Southern Oscillation weather cycle. El Niño events can include drought and extreme heat, while La Niña events can include extreme rainfall and severe flooding. It is predicted that even 1.5C of global warming will double the frequency of extreme El Niño events and magnify the rainfall variability of the El Niño–La Niña weather cycle. The potential impact of these changes was made clear in 1998, when El Niño induced drought caused severe food shortages in Indonesia
The Asian Development Bank has predicted that without technological advances or adaptation measures, rice yields in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam could be up to 50% lower in 2100 than they were in 1990. The risk to agricultural production will be a key challenge as population growth continues.
The supply of fish, which is Southeast Asia’s primary source of protein, is also in danger. Southeast Asian fisheries are already threatened by unsustainable exploitation and climate-induced ocean acidification will place further strain on these ecosystems.
Impacts such as these can have important flow-on effects for regional relations. The combination of reduced rice yields and pressures on inland fisheries would, for example, increase the importance of fish stocks in the South China Sea. Competition over these resources, both between regional actors and with China, may increase sources of tension.
The potential for climate-induced mass migration, both within Southeast Asia and from the highly vulnerable and densely populated neighbouring region of South Asia, is another stability threat. The combination of increased natural disasters, population growth, sea level rise, threats to traditional livelihoods and food insecurity create an ideal context for large-scale displacement. Migration issues have already caused tensions between some Southeast Asian states, and flows of a greater magnitude could accentuate the frequency and urgency.
Increased Southeast Asia instability will inevitably be detrimental to Australia’s interests. Due to its large population and economy, geographical proximity and its potential as a buffer zone against a hostile Asian power, Southeast Asia plays a vital role in Australia’s strategic calculus.
The geography to Australia’s immediate north is particularly significant to its security. Any conventional threat to Australia is likely to approach through the archipelago, as are other threats such as illegal migration and drug trafficking. The 2016 Defence White Paper accordingly identifies “a secure nearer region” as one of Australia’s three core defence interests. 

Australia’s economic and strategic interests in Southeast Asia would also be adversely affected by greater regional instability.

Trade flows with Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries are already significant and the region’s growth offers future opportunities. Southeast Asian waters also carry the majority of Australia’s international trade. Nearly two thirds of Australia’s exports pass through the South China Sea alone.
A strong and secure Indonesia is particularly vital to combatting threats to Australia. It has the military capabilities, geographic size and diplomatic weight necessary to positively affect regional stability and deter destabilising or hostile activities by China. The potential of climate change’s effects to undermine Indonesian political and social stability is therefore significant.
Climate-linked regional fragility may also increase operational demands on the Australian Defence Force. Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update notes a potential increase in the need for evacuation, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions and more demanding stabilisation operations.
Confronting Southeast Asia’s climate challenges effectively will require a whole-of-government approach, with a focus on improving understanding and monitoring changing vulnerabilities and trends. This would ideally advance the objectives of multiple agencies, avoid duplication of effort, and make better use of scarce resources. The US climate task force, established by the Biden administration in January, offers a potential template for Australia to follow.
Australia has taken some positive initial steps in responding to climate-linked regional threats. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology, for example, has recently deepened its relationship with the defence and national intelligence community.
However, much more needs to be done. The Commonwealth first needs to fully acknowledge the security implications of climate change on Southeast Asia then continually improve its understanding of regional vulnerabilities and their potential flow-on effects. This information should then be incorporated into future strategic planning.

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