HONOLULU — The United States has become acutely aware of “new security threats” since 9/11. Transnational terrorism does not fit neatly within the mind-set that has guided U.S. national security thinking throughout the 20th century. The move to create a homeland security department is proof of the need for a new approach in this field.

East Asian security planners have long grappled with such nontraditional threats. For most of the postwar era, their chief concern has been internal instability rather than explicit external threats. They have focused on the sources of domestic unrest — which is, unfortunately, an ever-lengthening list. When those governments look beyond their borders, they have discovered that unregulated population movements, drug-trafficking and transnational gangs, to name a few, take precedence over overt military threats from neighbors. (Of course, they are not blind to arms acquisitions and defense modernization. Still, clashes between states are considered a low probability.)

One of the most slippery elements of this “extended security” paradigm is the relationship between the environment and security. In the abstract, it’s easy to see a connection between the two. States have gone to war over contested resources such as water, fishing grounds or energy rights. But the real nexus is much wider.

Take deforestation. About 50 percent of Southeast Asia’s forest cover has been destroyed. The Food and Agricultural Organization puts the annual loss at about 1 percent, and the World Bank estimates that forest cover throughout East Asia is shrinking by about 1.4 percent yearly, a rate considerably higher than any other developing region. By one estimate, Indonesia’s 120 million hectares of forest is shrinking at a rate of 1.5 million hectares a year. Since 1985, about 25 to 30 percent of Indonesia’s forest cover has disappeared.

According to Alan Dupont, a former Australian security analyst who has done extensive work on new security threats, “at current rates, the primary forests of the Philippines, Cambodia and Malaysia are expected to disappear in the next decade, and those of Indonesia, which has half of Asia’s remaining forest, will no longer exist by 2030.”

The impact of deforestation goes considerably beyond the loss of a valuable resource. It diminishes a state’s “capacity” — its ability to meet the basic needs of its people. Dupont notes that “removing trees often triggers a cycle of flooding . . . substantial soil erosion and sometimes desertification.” It can also cause flooding across borders and contribute to pollution or climate change leading to food shortages, population movements, economic damage and death.

Through that lens, it’s easy to get equally worried about air pollution, water pollution and the forest fires that create the brown haze that has become a regular feature of Southeast Asian summers. The links between the environment and security look pretty solid.

The problem is the length of the chain. Environmental destruction has a powerful impact on state capacity and, therefore, national power. A country that can’t provide drinking water to its citizens or doesn’t have sufficient arable land to feed its people is a weakened nation. But how significant are those factors? And what does this logic exclude as a national security threat?

Conference participants last week at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, or APCSS, a Honolulu-based think tank associated with the United States Department of Defense, tried to pin down this sometimes elusive relationship. They agreed that security planners needed to take a more expansive view of the challenges ahead.

In dealing with China, for example, one expert pointed out that a map of China shows almost every province is predisposed to natural disaster, often as the result of too much or too little water. Flooding is an age-old problem, and has prompted the Three Gorges Dam project. Today, however, water scarcity is a rising concern. China has per capita water resources of less than 2,300 cubic meters, one-fourth the world average. About 60 million people in China have difficulty getting enough water to meet their daily needs. Water shortages are exacerbated by pollution, which increases disease, cuts farm yields and has a cumulative impact on industry, livestock and fisheries. China’s total annual losses due to environmental degradation are put at 18.9 percent of the aggregate annual income. At least 6 million Chinese are thought to be environmental refugees within the country.

Yet even if the problem is plain and quantifiable, it is still unclear whether this constitutes a “security” problem. As one expert noted, “there is no direct causal link between water distribution and conflict.” Thomas Homer-Dixon, who has written extensively on the subject, concludes that scarcity has “insidious and cumulative social impacts,” and argues that disasters can trigger conflicts by giving groups opportunities for action against a government whose legitimacy and authority have been eroded by civil war, corruption, economic mismanagement, rapid population growth or deteriorating renewable resources. But this is a complex interaction and identifying causes and effects is difficult.

The Koreans are concerned about the pollution that has turned the Yellow Sea into a “brownish-red sea.” The poisoning of the waters has been exacerbated by the overexploitation of marine resources by China and both Koreas. They also must deal with air pollutants and massive storms of yellow dust that blow east from China. On the worst days, visibility can be cut to almost zero and residents are forced to don masks to breathe. Schools and factories may shut down. Thus a clear impact on human health and national productivity exist, but are these security threats?

Identifying “threats” is considerably easier than responding to them. What can the Koreas realistically do to minimize the yellow dust and acid rain that they face with increasing regularity? What does a government do when a “threat” is the byproduct of its other policies? China faces acute dilemmas when deciding how to allocate water. Agriculture uses 80 percent of the country’s water, so programs that divert water to boost employment and development clash with the government’s attempts to create food security.

In some cases, “extended security” can help national security planners better prepare for contingencies. A better understanding of the factors that contribute to conflict will allow diplomats to prevent situations from boiling over. As one speaker at the APCSS conference noted, a wider lens can help avoid the trap created by “too much clarity” — an apt warning as the world tries to deal with the phenomenon of terrorism.

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