In 2009 the first democratically elected President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, held an underwater cabinet meeting. The stunt was crafted to draw international attention to the plight of many low-lying island nations as climate change causes sea levels to rise, threatening their continued existence.
Nasheed used the moment to call on world leaders to act to confront climate change, stating that unless they were successful, nations such as the Maldives would disappear.
Discussions around climate change and its security implications usually focus on rising sea levels, extreme weather, and issues of food and water scarcity. However, we should think more broadly about how climate change will create conditions in which the vulnerability of some states could be manipulated in ways that destabilise global security.
In the Maldives, which comprises 1200 islands in the Indian Ocean and was once a strategic ally of India, the growing influence of China and climate adaptation strategies interact in ways that are certain to exacerbate the geostrategic rivalry between the two Indo-Pacific powers.
As tensions play out in island countries, we are seeing significant geopolitical implications emerge alongside the obvious human security consequences of climate change.
Under Nasheed, the Maldives planned to mitigate the effects of climate change by relocating residents of the islands most vulnerable to sea-level rise. In the intervening years since the President’s PR stunt, the country has experienced a significant backsliding of democracy, with Nasheed ousted from power during a police mutiny in 2012.
The current President, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, has abandoned the relocation plans and instead pursued a policy of land reclamation intended to build up the islands to above sea level. The plan depends on vast amounts of foreign investment and development projects.
Concerns about climate change and rising sea levels were at the heart of Yameen’s decision to amend the country’s constitution to allow foreign ownership of land. To buy land, foreigners will have to invest at least $1 billion, and show that 70% of their project site will be made up of land reclaimed from the sea.
India has long viewed China’s increasing influence in the Maldives with concern. The new investment rule, when assessed alongside the free trade agreement between China and the Maldives, and Maldivian participation in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Maritime Silk Road initiative, seems to open space for China to add another strategic pearl to its string in the Indian Ocean.
The proxy battle between India and China for influence in the Maldives is a worrying example of the way in which climate adaptation support, delivered through infrastructure development and land reclamation, could in future be manipulated for political leverage.
A similar scenario triggered alarm bells for some Australian and New Zealand policymakers last week as rumours spread that China was in discussions to build a military base in Vanuatu.
While those rumours were later denied by Vanuatu, the long-term implications of China’s vast regional project of infrastructure investment through development loans, the Belt and Road Initiative, and deepening economic relationships with states spanning the Indian and Pacific oceans are causing concern among many countries, including Australia.
China could use climate change as a key element of its geo-economic strategy, through development aid and infrastructure loans tied to climate adaptation projects, to deepen its influence in the Indo-Pacific.
This in itself is not necessarily problematic. The key concern is that as developing states take on unsustainable debt to China through these initiatives, their ability to exercise independence in foreign policymaking becomes compromised.
Australia and New Zealand should think carefully about this as they develop climate security policies and look at the long-term implications of development assistance within the Indo-Pacific region.
Climate change should not be thought of as a separate category of risk, but rather as the backdrop upon which future geopolitical developments in the Indo-Pacific will unfold.