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Pacific islands under siege by climate change or China

These Islands By Robert Underwood

When island leaders are asked what is the major security challenge in the island Pacific, they uniformly reply “climate change.” This has been repeatedly stated by the Pacific Island Forum in the past decade and in the recently completed COP 26 Forum in Scotland.

Regional leaders were hoping for a declaration of war on climate change, but instead they got a bunch of heated rhetoric. The rhetoric was exponentially hotter than the 1.5 degrees set as a target by islanders. But the declaration of war in terms of action never happened.

There is something striking about island states, especially atoll nations, sounding the alarm about “existential threats.” Their nations will literally disappear if war isn’t declared on climate change. As sea levels and water temperatures rise, their future is literally at stake. Marshallese Health Minister Bruce Billimon dramatically stated that atoll nations are under siege.

But declaring war on climate change is not like declaring war on another nation. It seems amorphous. We only know when we lose as measured in centimeters and degrees. But we won’t know when we are winning. It has the danger of becoming like the war on terror. We are painfully aware of how that turned out between declarations of “mission accomplished,” prolonged conflict and ignominious withdrawals.

For those who are responsible for preparing for conflict and actual war, strategic and security threats appear very different. We are in the midst of a war of words and perceptions about the competition between China and the United States.

There are military maneuvers designed to show the seriousness of the matter and strength of coalitions involved. Last year, the Quad Nations demonstrated coordination of military capacity near Guahan in Malabar 21. The Quad nations are India, Japan, Australia and the United States.

This is accompanied by discussions about military basing in the freely associated states in Micronesia, complicated missile defense systems in Guahan and rhetorical flourishes about China as a “pacing threat.” The Brookings Institute has stated that China uses corruption and “elite capture” to undermine governance systems in the Pacific. To Americans, Australians and Chinese the security threats in the Pacific may appear very different from those seen by Pacific island leaders.

For military planners, the immediate security threat and disrupter is China, its military growth, its influence and its state-owned enterprises. This doesn’t mean that the defense establishments are unmindful of climate change. There is a growing literature about climate change and its effect on military facilities, equipment and force projection. The military is always mindful about social, scientific and political trends. In many ways, it is quicker to react to them. But the immediate threat is China.


The military response to climate change will be about how it affects their operations. It won’t be long before we see greater fuel efficiency in militarized vehicles. Australia has already developed a prototype for an all-terrain electric vehicle for their defense forces.

The U.S. seems to be a bit behind in that effort. If only Australia were as forward thinking in their attitudes toward coal and natural gas as they are in the “greening” of their military vehicles. But there is general concern about the military contribution to the carbon “boot” print by all nations.

But that is not the same as seeing climate change itself as a security threat. For some, it is a complicating factor. But real security threats come from other nations which are challenging your authority and influence. Bridging the gap between an “existential threat” in which we are under siege and analyzing complicated Chinese maneuverings will require major effort. Admirals, generals and a bunch of thinktanks will focus on the Chinese. The rash of articles and interest in Guahan, Micronesia and the other islands has grown substantially.


In the meantime, island health and foreign ministers as well as activists will focus on the siege which holds their islands hostage. They will attract headlines. But whether they generate major activity is uncertain. I am not sure that this gap can be narrowed. I have heard some military planners refer to the islanders’ cries about climate change as “attention-grabbing.” When you are under siege, you need all the attention you can get. There appears to be some condescension in that perspective that sees islanders as simply complaining about a natural trend when the real threat is from China.

The pandemic should give us pause to think about our islands and how they are used. From my home, I could set the time of the day by the airlines that landed and took off at the airport. Those reminders of my daily rhythm are gone for the time being as tourists are largely absent. I do hear the noises of jets at odd and unpredictable hours of the day. They are all associated with the military and could come from any of the Quad countries. The carbon boot print is stronger than ever.

Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to

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