Why Has Sea Level Rise Not Been Securitized by the PLA?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 15

The PLA frequently plants trees and hosts other green activities, but do they have a plan for Sea Level Rise? (Source: People's Daily Online)

Note: The views presented in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.

Ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is set to take place in Paris later this year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang recently announced plans for China to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change, making it one of the boldest moves yet by the world’s leading emitter (State Council June 30; NDRC June 30). In May, U.S. President Barack Obama issued a stern warning about the increasing looming danger of global instability and conflict as a consequence of sea level rise (SLR), during his commencement address to graduating cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (White House, May 20). The President’s remarks were based on findings by the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which predicted that global temperatures will continually increase between 2.0 degrees and 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the IPCC’s report, the rise in temperature may result in three to six feet of SLR by the end of this century. [1] As the sea level rises in the future, China and more than 150 other littoral countries in the world will be catastrophically affected.

Primer on China’s Recognition of Climate Change and SLR

The Chinese government officially recognized the threat of climate change (气候变化) and SLR in its Initial National Communication on Climate Change in 2004 (Department of Climate Change, November 9, 2004). Before this groundbreaking communication, China suffered from an internal and external communication gap going back to the 1980s. Without a broad internal consensus on the issue, China’s environmental policies lacked momentum. Compared to the focus on economic development and more traditional threats to its legitimacy and social stability, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gave climate change and environmental issues a lower priority. [2] The low social profile of global climate change, particularly due to the fact that its discussion was predominantly limited to “academic circles,” compounded the difficulty of persuading policymakers to take action. [3] Once climate change gained momentum, primarily as a result of international awareness and pressure, China created lower-level agencies, such as the National Climate Change Coordinating Leading Small Group (NCCCLSG) in 1990, to research and further climate change–related initiatives. When China placed the NCCCLG under China’s most comprehensive commission, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), it signaled a “significant change in policy” in 1998. [4] Despite these efforts, by 2005, the broader public was still only being “hesitantly informed” by the government. [5] State-controlled media continue to cherry-pick facts and mainly broadcast messages only around representative dates and events, such as World Meteorological Day, Earth Day, or one of the frequent PLA-sponsored tree plantings. [6]

But progress has been made. Since the 2004 Communication, China has provided observations and data to the IPCC; published a second official announcement in 2012 on climate change, the Second National Communication on Climate Change; dispatched its scientists, such Dr. He Qinghuang from the Chinese Academy of Rivers and Qin Dahe from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to assist in climate change related research at the IPCC; and incorporated climate change–related offices, laws and advisory groups into the Chinese bureaucracy. As recently as last fall, China made international headlines on a deal with the United States to cut emissions related to climate change (Xinhua, November 11, 2014). More outspoken climate change advocates, such as Wang Qi from the Ocean University of China, conclude that China’s “response to climate change should become a strategic pivot [战略支点] for Chinese diplomacy.” [7]

The 2004 Communication based some of its findings on information provided by the Hong Kong Observatory, which has been tracking SLR around the Kowloon peninsula for over 60 years as part of its depth and tide readings. The observatory’s scientists have observed a “long-term rising trend” in SLR with at least a 0.1-inch increase per year since the 1950s; these experts project more increases into the future. [8] While SLR is not homogeneous throughout China’s maritime domain, these observations and those from other Chinese researchers resonate with the 2012 Communication’s projections that anticipate more pronounced SLR (Department of Climate Change, November, 2012). Extreme models for SLR that take into account the complete collapse of the world’s ice sheets, including the major sheets located in Greenland and Antarctica, conclude that SLR could rise as high as 230 feet above today’s current sea-level. [9] As the U.S. Geological Survey forecasts, this rise would completely swallow Beijing and Shanghai, the two largest cities in China, which would flood under a rise of 32 to 65 feet of water (USGS, March 2013). Even conservative forecasts that predict a three-to-six-foot rise would see a radical disruption of China’s economy and put its new maritime construction under the waves. But this threat is not isolated to China’s coastal and maritime domains–it will affect the global maritime commons.

Securitization of Climate Change and SLR

At present, other governments are enlisting their militaries to reassess, create and insert mitigation and adaptation plans for climate change into their operational and strategic plans that include SLR. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense published its first strategy in 2010 and the United States’ Department of Defense released its Climate Change Roadmap last year (MOD; DOD). In effect, climate change has slowly become securitized. So why has China not officially securitized climate change as its peers have?

China has more than 11,185 miles of coastline and over 6,700 islands; its economic and population centers are on, near, along, or near rivers and larger bodies of water. It has invested in expansive reclamation projects and territories along its littoral areas, including major portions of Hong Kong and Macao. The PLA and PLA-Navy maintain huge military facilities at Hainan Island, Ningbo and Lushun, and are actively involved in terriclaiming the South China Sea as part of China’s territorial ambitions there. [10] Even if the waters do not rise as high as the extreme forecasts mentioned earlier, small levels of SLR and accompanying storm surges will threaten each of these areas. [11] Disaster response alone by the PLA will not be sufficient to deal with SLR. With so many dire predictions and official government recognition of SLR, why have SLR mitigation and adaptation strategies not been officially recognized by the PLA, PLA-Navy and the Ministry of National Defense in their operational and strategic plans?

De-Securitization of Climate Change and SLR by the Chinese Military

In line with the government’s approach, Chinese security analysts have produced a growing body of studies and analysis on climate change. Even burgeoning analysts from China’s various graduate school programs have opined on climate change securitization. [12] Yet, most Chinese academics and analysts compartmentalize the securitization aspect of climate change into the sub-category of non-traditional security challenges. [13] This categorization includes desertification, extreme weather projections, resource security (especially food), population migrations, disaster response/relief, green energy initiatives and internal/external security.

One of the few to highlight SLR as a traditional security threat is Professor Zhang Haibin at Peking University. He has become one of China’s most widely recognized analysts on the subject and has written extensively on the broader link between Chinese national security and climate change for almost a decade. [14] While he does focus on non-traditional security challenges, his research is unique because he includes more robust and broader sections devoted exclusively to SLR. In addition to Zhang Haibin’s research, one noteworthy study by four analysts from the Institute of Meteorology, PLA University of Science and Technology and the PLA (Army) concluded that SLR will “change the marine borderline and energy corridor pattern [in the Arctic], which will pose a threat to Chinese sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.” [15] This study also recognized the hidden “benefits” from SLR, such as the opening of the Arctic to exploration and trade. [16] Despite their efforts, there remains an overall dearth of SLR-security related material, research and studies by the Chinese security establishment.

Where Is Climate Change in the 2015 White Paper?

The deficiency of SLR security–related material is more glaring now that China has removed “climate change” from its official PLA and Ministry of National Defense guidance, as noted in the most recent white paper, 2015 China’s Military Strategy (China.org, May 26). While the 2015 white paper does note “non-traditional” security threats, the omission this year is a major reversal from previous acknowledgments of climate change made in the 2008 and 2010 white papers (Xinhua, March 31, 2011; China.org, January 21, 2009; May 25). Further, there appears to be no official operational or strategic plan from the PLA, PLA-Navy and the Ministry of National Defense that responds to climate change or SLR. The evidence suggests that this omission cannot be chalked-up to mere apathy by Chinese security planners; rather, there could be a variety of substantive reasons for this omission. First, it supports the observation that SLR and climate change in general remain secondary and “indirect” concerns to China’s security planners. [17] Second, it may signal a divergence between official government and military views on climate change or a broader reversal of research and preparation on climate change securitization. Third, it could be a matter of political and economic feasibility and timing driven by larger Chinese ambitions. When publishing the 2008 and 2010 white papers, the Chinese military might have played up climate change since China could leverage the issue from a position of relative economic strength and developmental status to attract international support. But the recent instability in the Chinese stock market, a slower economic growth rate and a more forward-leaning diplomatic presence pushes climate change and other issues to periphery. Finally, the PLA may not be perceived by the Chinese government or PLA leadership as a prime factor in shaping the environment or environmental policy in the same way as other militaries. Specifically, its environmental footprint could be perceived as minimal or non-existent both at home and abroad. Conversely, the global reach and presence of the U.S. military creates a substantial environmental footprint that focuses political pressure both domestically and internationally on the American government and military.

Regardless of the reason for the omission, the de-prioritization of climate change seems to be at odds with the maritime domain focus of the new 2015 white paper, which, as noted earlier, is the area most affected by SLR (China.org, May 26). Yet, these new goals and the de-prioritization of climate change miss a critical and on-going discussion among China’s government, military and academic communities over the securitization of climate change, especially concerning SLR.

Way Forward

Conventional wisdom would dictate that China’s military would have a vested interest in officially calculating SLR into their operational and strategic plans, especially if China is intent on turning more of its attention to the maritime domain and protecting its littoral assets. But as the Second National Communication on Climate Change points out, “climate change is an environment issue, but also and more importantly, a development issue” (Department of Climate Change, November 2012). Researcher Duncan Freeman elaborates that climate change is essentially framed by the Chinese government as an “economic question” and so it is has a “marginal position” in national security as noted by its placement within the NDRC. [18] Thus, as the world’s second largest economy, China can only advance its efforts on climate change if it follows the “course of sustainable development.” [19]

China has strong potential to enhance and further develop the Chinese economy through initiatives tied to the green economy (绿色经济) highlighted by the rapid advancement of Chinese solar cells and wind turbines. In regards to the 2015 Sino-U.S. climate change meeting, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences – Institute of International Relations reported it as a "strategic economic dialogue to strengthen and expand bilateral cooperation, involving joint research and development [on climate change]” to include green initiatives. [20] In the future, the PLA and various military agencies could easily reap the benefits from these exchanges and incorporate them into their operational and strategic plans in the same way the U.S. Navy has advanced green initiatives, such as biofuels. China does not have to take the course set in the most recent white paper; China can simultaneously develop while accomplishing its new “Chinese Dream”-a dream that acknowledges and securitizes climate change and SLR (Xinhua, March 31, 2011).

Commander Wilson VornDick has a B.A. from George Washington University and studied at East China Normal University in Shanghai. His assignments include the Chinese Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College and the Pentagon. The views presented in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.


1. IPCC, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of the Working Group I to Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 (Geneva: IPCC, 2007), [accessed February 2014].

2. Charles McElwee, Environmental Law in China: Mitigating Risk and Ensuring Compliance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 43.

3. Maren Lau, “Adaptation to Sea-level Rise in the People’s Republic of China – Assessing the Institutional Dimension of Alternative Organizational Frameworks,” (Working Paper FNU-94, Hamburg University, 2005), p. 14, [accessed November 2014].

4. David Held et al., “The Governance of Climate Change in China,” (Working Paper 01/2011, London School of Economics, 2011), p. 23. [accessed December 2014].

5. Lau, “Adaptation to Sea-level Rise in the People’s Republic of China,” p. 16.

6. Ibid.

7. Wang Qi, “The Impact of Climate Change on China’s National Security,” Journal of Jiangnan Social University (江南社会学院学报), Vol. 14. No.2 (June 2012): pp. 11–14.

8. K.W. Li and H.Y. Mok, “Long Term Trends of the Regional Sea Level Changes in Hong Kong and the Adjacent Waters” (presentation and report, Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Asian and Pacific Coasts, Hong Kong, China, December 14-16, 2011), p.10, [accessed November 2014].

9. Helen Fricker, “Association of Pacific Rim Universities – Sustainability and Climate Change Program” (presentation and report, International Workshop on Coastal Cities, Climate Change and Sea Level Rise, San Diego, CA, September 5–7, 2012). [accessed November 2014]. This would be the highest sea level since the last ice-free period about 50 million years ago.

10. “Geography of China,” China.org. China has 14,500 km of coastline according to the CIA: “The World Factbook: People’s Republic of China,” Central Intelligence Agency, 2014. [accessed November 2014]; Zhang Haibin, “Climate Change and Chinese National Security,” (presentation and remarks at the Beijing Forum: The Harmony of Civilizations of Prosperity for All – Challenging Crises, Reflection and Harmonious Development, Peking University, November 9, 2009): 13-23; 16. Translation by author, accessed June 2015; Wilson VornDick, “Terriclaims: The New Geopolitical Reality in the South China Sea,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, April 8, 2015; Lau, “Adaptation to Sea-level Rise in the People’s Republic of China,” 17.

11. Wang Ka-Fa-Sheng, et. al., “Analysis on Typhoon-Induced Storm Surge Vulnerability of China’s Coastal Areas on Rising Sea Level Background,” Journal of Tropical Oceanography (热带海洋学报) Vol. 30 No. 6 (2011): 31-36.

12. See Liu Jin Peng’s master’s thesis for Shandong Normal University, entitled “The Impact of Climate Change on China’s National Security" and Li Sheng’s doctorate’s thesis for Jilin University, entitled "Global Climate Governance and the Strategic Choice of China.” Both tackled climate change securitization in 2012. While these observations remain a minority within the overall field of security affairs-related research, they are important for two reasons. First, they signal a general openness and forum for these thoughts, especially among the academic community; and second, they highlight the growth of this field of security-related study within China over this decade.

13. The Science of Military Strategy [战略学], 3rd ed., Beijing: Military Science Press [军事科学出版社], 2013, Pg. 74 and pages 80-81.

14. Zhang Haibin, “Climate Change and China’s National Security,” International Politics Quarterly (国际政治研究), Vol. 30 No. 4 (2009): pp.12–39.

15. Yao Xuefeng, Et al. “Impacts of Climate Change on China’s National Security,” Journal of Meteorology and Disaster Reduction Research (气象与减灾研究), Vol.34 No.1 (Mar. 2011): 56-62; 61. Translation by author.

16. Xuefeng. "Impacts of Climate Change,” 61.

17. Duncan Freeman, “The Missing Link: China, Climate Change and National Security,” Brussels Institute of Contemporary Chinese Studies Asia Papers, Vol. 5 No. 8 (2010): 1-35. [accessed June 2015].

18. Freeman, “The Missing Link,” 1.

19. Ibid.

20. Tang Wei, “Jointly Cope with Climate Change to Promote Green Economy,” Cultural Exchange Daily

(文汇报), 17 Nov. 2014, at 5. [accessed June 2015]. Translation by author.