China’s had a good run – now for the real threat
9 Jan 2013|


For defence and security thinkers the dominant theme for the past several years has been the rise of China and the potential for this development to create tension across the Asia–Pacific. The US pivot, President Barack Obama’s speech to the Australian Parliament, an increasing focus on the South China Sea and the release of Australia’s Asian Century White Paper all signal widespread concern that China’s growing influence will result in a redefining of the region’s strategic order.

The focus on China is understandable, but this singularity of attention has meant that another challenge has not received the consideration it warrants. The real danger lies in the intensification of the present shortage of resources, particularly food and water, and the likelihood that shortfalls will spur instability and conflict across the Asia–Pacific and the globe. Resource wars are coming, and yet comparatively little has been said about them by commentators or done to prepare for them by governments.

Of the many resources that humanity consumes, the most vital are food and water. In 2012 over one billion people suffered from chronic hunger, the majority of them living in the Asia–Pacific, while a further billion are ‘food insecure’. This is only the start of the hunger, and experts predict that the global food supply will diminish in coming years. In fact, the situation might already be irretrievable, because:

  • Global population will continue to grow, reaching 10 billion by approximately 2050;
  • Production of all key grains has begun to plateau;
  • Rates of water extraction have begun to decline due to over-exploitation;
  • Declining soil quality and loss of farmland to urban expansion has reduced production capacity;
  • Using agriculture to produce ethanol and bio-fuels diverts food from human consumption while increasing grain prices; and
  • Increased affluence in emerging economies is raising meat consumption which has increased pressure on global grain supply.

The outlook for the future is even worse than the outline above suggests, because it doesn’t take into account the possible effects of climate change. While this remains an emotive and divisive topic, climate change’s effect on food production will prove dramatic. As a rough guide, a one degree rise in temperature has the potential to lead to a 10 per cent loss in grain yield. The most recent temperature predictions forecast a rise of six degrees by century’s end. So even a rise of half that amount could be catastrophic for the planet’s ability to feed itself—the result could be widespread starvation and/or migration. Climate change driven sea-level rises will increase the salinity of or submerge critical coastal food production zones, and more frequent and more powerful storms pose additional risks to food production.

Admittedly, there’s a degree of room in the global food production system for some increases in agricultural output. For example, the implementation of better agronomy practices could enhance yields across Africa, and developed countries could return to the global food supply the food stocks now diverted to fuel production. But such steps are nowhere near enough; population growth will outstrip any savings.

The planet is in the early stages of coming resource shortfall that will alter the global strategic environment, just as China’s rise is doing. While it’s not immediate, alarms of a pending food collapse have begun to sound. Egypt’s food supply, for example, remains in a precarious state, as does that of nearby Djibouti, and other countries in Africa and Asia are in a similar position. Dam construction in the Middle East and Asia also threaten to reduce flows to downriver granaries, such as the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, whose future fertility is clouded by hydroelectric projects in China and Laos. The Philippines is dependent on Vietnamese rice imports whose production is now under threat by up river neighbours. Irreplaceable aquifers in the United States, India and China are running dry and farmers must drill ever deeper as wells stop producing water. By contrast, much of Thailand’s rice growing region is subject to flooding.

The result of the imbalance between supply and demand has resulted in a soaring of the international price of staple grains. For wealthy countries the shortfall is manageable through price increases, but in those regions were inhabitants already spend more than 50 per cent of their income on food there is little ability to allocate more money to food. Ever more pervasive hunger and starvation will be the result.

The US 2010 QDR identified ‘rising demand for resources’ as one of the trends that might spark or exacerbate conflicts. The Pentagon isn’t alone in this prognosis; after all, increasing food prices preceded the Arab Spring. The geopolitics of food is changing, and not for the better, as the planet moves into an era of food scarcity and political instability. Resource shortages, coupled with climate change, will produce situations that will lead to state collapse and the mass migration of desperate people. And this has happened before: in the historical record there’s no shortage of civilisations that have disappeared. The difference this time is that globalisation has created a single world civilisation: we’re all at risk.

Unfortunately, the few commentators interested in the subject still see it as a problem of environmental migration which can be solved by an appropriate policy framework. Such research minimises the problem and the solution. When hundreds of millions of people decide to move it ceases to be a migrant problem; it’s a national existential problem and needs a national security response.

By all means, governments and commentators should continue to consider how to respond to the rise of China. It needs to be done. But short of a very unlikely nuclear Armageddon, Chinaposes little threat to human survival. The same can’t be said of resource wars. The future will be dominated by a struggle for the control of resources and the need to prevent or divert mass migrations. Hard questions need to be asked. For example, how should the Australian government respond to the organised dispatch of flotillas of boats of people who have transitioned from a trickle of refugees to an overwhelming flood? What equipment, capabilities and training would the ADF need to stem such a tide of humanity? Is a military response appropriate, and would the military, and the Australian government and people, have the stomach to repel violently desperate people in the name of state survival? At some stage we might have to grapple with those issues. We’d be better off giving it some thought now, rather than having to construct a response in extremis.

Albert Palazzo is a senior research fellow at the Land Warfare Studies Centre. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Image courtesy of Flickr user dasroofless.