Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

China's Environmental Crisis: A Non-Traditional Security Threat to the World

By Christina YinPublished October 2, 2016

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China has experienced rapid rates of modernization over the past several decades. However, along with a booming economy comes the increasing growth of greenhouse gas emissions, representing one of the greatest challenges facing the nation today. Within the last few decades, China's current environmental crisis poses a massive non-traditional security threat: domestic and international fallout from the political, economic, and social consequences of the country's extensive environmental degradation propels environmental cleanup and sustainability to be China's most pressing concern of this era.
By Christina Yin, 10/2/16

China has experienced rapid rates of modernization over the past several decades. With an extraordinarily developed economy and GDP, China has proved itself a major player on today's world stage. However, along with a booming economy comes the increasing growth of greenhouse gas emissions, representing one of the greatest challenges facing the nation today. Despite rising to the status of an increasingly major player on the world stage within the last few decades, China's current environmental crisis poses a massive non-traditional security threat: domestic and international fallout from the political, economic, and social consequences of the country's extensive environmental degradation propels environmental cleanup and sustainability to be China's most pressing concern of this era.
 
Three general factors constitute a non-traditional security threat. First, the issue must be transnational in origin, and its potential effects must extend beyond one state's borders. This means that more than one country will experience the effects of the issue. Second, the issue must be accompanied by a significant number of ties that are designed to regulate, manage or eliminate the challenge itself. This web of ties can take the form of governance, societal actors, or international institutions. Third, non-conventional military force should be an important component of the attempts to address the issue. China's current environmental situation fulfills these three criteria, qualifying it as a non-traditional security threat.

The effects of China's environmental crisis extend far beyond its own borders. From an economic standpoint, air pollution contributes to economic losses to China, which in turn affect those of other nations. The government has spent 190 million RMB ($23 billion) on pollution management strategies, which amounts to 1.4% of the country's GDP. Over the last two decades, China's environmental concerns have become increasingly intertwined with the opening of its economy, and the effects of the environmental downturn on China's economy have been experienced within and beyond Asia. With the increasing globalization of world economies, issues in China's economy will affect those of other nations as well.

From a political standpoint, China's environmental crisis has been attracting international attention. Within the nation, citizens are becoming increasingly frustrated by the Communist Party of China's lack of response to the astounding levels of pollution in the cities. This frustration has manifested itself in the form of mass disturbances, which are largely targeted towards local officials' lack of action and enforcement of sanctions towards industrial pollution. As a result, China's internal citizen unrest regarding the harmful environmental situation has been on the rise, and this tension has attracted international attention. The eyes of other international leaders are on China as a major player in the world's environmental status, and Beijing has not been short of criticism from other nations for its lack of tangible results in terms of lowering fossil fuel emissions. China's energy security is also in question: the central government has been increasingly relying on resources such as oil from other nations, looking to Latin America, Africa, and nations in the contested South China Sea as sources. In this way, the political effects of China's environmental situation are likewise transnational in nature.

The Chinese government's efforts to deal with these issues have also been transnational in nature. The World Bank, other multilateral institutions, and international NGOs have all played significant roles in recent efforts to decrease environmental pollution within China. Despite the central government's recent crackdown on NGOs, many of which deal with aspects of environmental sustainability and management, national and international NGOs continue to play a large role in improving the environmental quality in China. China's participation in the international climate talks, most recently in Paris, also point to the transnational nature of the government's efforts to deal with the environmental issues the nation faces.

The Chinese military has also played a significant role in confronting the environmental crisis. The People's Liberation Army is often the force that copes with environmental tragedies, which can be seen particularly in their ongoing involvement in responding to the consequences and casualties of natural disasters within China. Furthermore, the People's Liberation Army Navy has become a significant player in the central government's attempts to protect the channels in the South China Sea through which a large portion of China's foreign oil resources travel.
According to the above criteria constituting a non-traditional security threat, China's current environmental crisis has significant implications for the country's and the world's futures. Due to the increasing globalization and interconnectedness of the world's nations, environmental cleanup and sustainability need to explicitly be among the top priorities for China and the rest of the world.