Travis Kupp, a member of our Emerging Fellows program checks the impact of climate change across borders in Asia through his seventh blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Climate change is inevitable, hard borders are not. The most significant threat to the continued rise of Asia is the impact of shifts in the natural environment, especially with regard to international relations. A rosy scenario would be increased regional and global cooperation that allows for a less restricted flow of ideas, migrants, and resources across borders for the benefit of all. However, such a future is dependent on the fearless acceptance of scarcity and deep uncertainty. History has shown that the typical response to such circumstances is more often than not restricted borders and protectionism. If this latter outcome is realized, the likelihood of an imminent Asian Century is greatly diminished.
Adapting to climate change may be the uniting cause that leads to a more integrated Asia. If better natures prevail, nations could look upon borders less severely and prioritize food, water, and energy security in a more benevolent regional manner. Such an approach could also help transcend the problematic mismatch of national borders with ethnic groups that are especially prevalent in Western and Central Asia. The result may be more comfort with existing “dotted lines” on the map or potentially completely redrawn borders with local autonomy but a shared vision for cooperation.
To the North, Russia could become more amenable to accepting migrants in an effort to accelerate the development of infrastructure along the Northern Sea Route. Even displaced agricultural workers will be a boon as fresh water from melting ice becomes more abundant in the region. This could lead to a special relationship with China involving increased exports of labor and goods and increased energy imports from Russia. Whatever the mix, a dramatic rebalancing of cross-border flows in pursuit of a new equilibrium will require trust and liberalization.
At odds to this sort of future is the present reality of border entrenchment. Finger-pointing for worsening environmental health conditions, including the occurrence and spread of infectious diseases, is likely to continue in the near term. Regardless of who gets stuck with the blame, unpredictable climate patterns will make long-term trade and investment agreements across borders highly unattractive. Asian nations will focus instead on energy independence and stabilizing agricultural output while making very selective covenants that fit with their adjusted tolerance for risk. This could effectively reverse the progress made through organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Resource scarcity, displacement, and economic contraction would result in more pronounced inequality and reactions to injustice. These disparities could lead to violent social shocks in underprepared areas. An unstable security landscape would heighten tensions between Asian nations and make any movement across borders subject to more stringent requirements and surveillance. Territorial disputes on land and sea will become flashpoints as the desire to control critical resources becomes more desperate. Tight control of borders in a changed climate will be the standard protocol.
The possible futures for Asia are bound to the continent’s response to the changing climate. Resource scarcity and environmental volatility could well deteriorate relationships in the region, undoing decades of economic development and integration. Asian nations may instead choose to avert this outcome with policies designed to open rather than restrict international borders. Collaborating on a framework that protects national interests through the turbulent process of change will require a level of trust never before seen on the continent but is possible if the shared narrative of climate adaptation is strong enough. Achieving this unified vision would secure the potential for an Asian Century to manifest in the coming decades.