Climate Change and International
Relations Theory: Northeast Asia as
a Case Study
Dr Benjamin Habib
Lecturer in Politics and International Relations
La Trobe University
School of Social Sciences
PO Box 821
Wodonga VIC 3689
Phone: +61 2 6024 9801
Paper presented at the World International Studies Committee Third Global International Studies
Conference, 17th – 20th August 2011, University of Porto, Portugal.
This paper is an exploration of the broader relationship between climate change and international relations
theory. A general assumption holds that the anarchic international system of competing sovereign states who
are unitary, rational actors. This view, however, disregards the fact that the anarchic system of sovereign
states is itself housed within the wider structure of the Earth’s biosphere. How then does international
relations theory account for the influence on the international politics biospheric transformation, as is
occurring with climate change? The paper begins with a brief synopsis of the academic treatment of the
environment, climate change and international relations theory. It then summarises the climate change
hazards likely to impact on Northeast Asia, as identified in the Working Group II contribution to the 2007
International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (Cruz et al 2007). Next, the paper will
examine the Northeast Asian political environment from the perspective of each of the three primary
international relations theories—realism, liberalism and constructivism—before providing an ontological
critique of each. The paper concludes that in the absence of an ontological reassessment of international
relations as a system of constituent parts, as well as a constituent part in its own right of the larger Earth
system, analysts are likely to view Northeast Asia as a progressively more Hobbesian regional system as a
result of growing climate-driven scarcity pressures and human insecurity.
This paper is an exploration of the broader relationship between climate change and international
relations theory. A general assumption holds that the anarchic international system consists of
competing sovereign states who are unitary, rational actors. This view, however, disregards the fact
that this anarchic system is itself housed within the wider structure of the Earth’s biosphere. How
then does international relations theory account for the influence on the international politics
biospheric transformation, as is occurring with climate change? This raises a number of related
questions: does climate change challenge the dominant view of human societies as separate from
the environment? If so, can we continue to assume the centrality of the state as the primary actor in
international relations? What non-state actors play an important role in international relations, in
the context of climate change? Finally, with those questions in mind, which of the three dominant
international relations theories have greater explanatory and prescriptive power in a climate-altered
world? The paper will attempt to explore these issues as a stimulus for further discussion.
These questions are examined in the context of the international politics of Northeast Asia. There
are two reasons for this selection: First, Northeast Asia is the author’s area of expertise and thus the
region of greatest familiarity. Second, Northeast Asia is a fascinating strategic milieu that escapes
ready explanation according to any single international relations theory, because none of the
dominant international relations theories “provides a completely satisfactory explanation of the
geopolitical dynamics of Northeast Asia as a whole” (Alagappa 2008; Kim 2006, 181; Friedberg 2005;
Katzenstein & Okawara 2001/02)."1 Indeed, regional interactions exhibit characteristics of realism,
liberalism and constructivism, making Northeast Asia an excellent selection as a regional case study
for the interplay between climate change and international relations theory.
Rather than break new ground, this paper will attempt to flesh out some of the implications of
climate change for the construction and application of international relations theory. The paper
begins with a brief synopsis of the academic treatment of the environment, climate change and
international relations theory. It then summarises the climate change hazards likely to impact on
Northeast Asia, as identified in the Working Group II contribution to the 2007 International Panel on
1 In deference to this heterogeneity, Wight (1991, 268) encouraged international relations scholars to “move round the circle” of
international relations theory and “enter into a position without settling anywhere,” as an explicit rejection of extreme paradigmatic fidelity.
This theme was picked up by Katzenstein and Okawara (2001/02, 167), who argued for "analytical eclecticism," a utilisation of insights
from multiple theoretical traditions and consideration of causal mechanisms at multiple levels of analysis.1 In the absence of a strong a
priori commitment to any one analytical perspective, the researcher has the capacity to address complicated foreign policy problems free
from the confines of a single paradigm.
Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (Cruz et al 2007). Next, the paper will examine the
Northeast Asian political environment from the perspective of each of the three primary
international relations theories—realism, liberalism and constructivism—before providing an
ontological critique of each. The paper concludes that in the absence of an ontological reassessment
of international relations as a system of constituent parts, as well as a constituent part in its own
right of the larger Earth system, analysts are likely to view Northeast Asia as a progressively more
Hobbesian regional system as a result of growing climate-driven scarcity pressures and human
Environment, Climate Change & IR Theory
Early interest in the political implications of environmental degradation stemmed from an
appreciation that human societies were bounded by ecological limits, the breaching of which could
lead to socio-economic catastrophes (Erlich 1968; Hardin 1968; Kennan 1971; Meadows et al 1972;
Brown 1977; Catton 1982). Generally these works foretold of future doom, warning of problems
developing over relatively long time horizons. Security studies analysts conceptualised
environmental degradation as a security threat, with growing sophistication over time and
increasing emphasis exclusively on climate change (Westing 1980; Gleick 1991; Homer-Dixon 1991;
Myers 1993; Orme 1997-98; Barnett 2003; Campbell 2008; Mazo 2010). Over the same period, as
global commons problems such as ozone depletion and global warming became salient in
international affairs, several thinkers began discussing multilateral environmental agreements (Haas,
Keohane & Levy 1994; Susskind 1994; Yamin & Depledge 2004) within the broader field of
international regimes (Ruggie, 1982; Krasner 1984; Keohane 1984; Russett & O’Neal 2001). Several
scholarly monographs also began to provide a multi-theoretical treatment of the environment in
international relations (Eckersley 2004; O’Neill 2009), or expanded the realm of international theory
to include concepts such as complexity from other disciplines (Alberts & Czerwinsk 1997; Jervis
1997; Kavalski 2007).
Climate Change Impacts for Northeast Asia
Northeast Asia is the case study through which this paper will examine the interplay between
climate change and international relations theory. To accomplish this task, it is necessary to
understand the nature of climate change impacts likely to affect the region. The following climate
change impact and vulnerability assessment is based on the methodology found in the Working
Group II contribution on Asia (chapter 10) of the Fourth Assessment Report of the International
Panel on Climate Change (Cruz et al 2007), with additional information included from other scholarly
sources. The IPCC methodology groups climate change impacts into six categories: agriculture and
food security, hydrology and water sources, coastal and low-lying areas, natural ecosystems and
biodiversity, human health, and other non-biological human dimensions. This section will provide a
summary of each category of impacts as the basis for the theoretical exploration to come.
Agriculture and Food Security
Northeast Asia can expect growing food insecurity due to climate change, in combination with
environmental degradation directly attributable to human development activity. On the supply side,
the erosion of the arable land stock is likely to decrease agricultural production, as will an increasing
incidence of agricultural pests and diseases. Rising average temperatures are predicted to depress
crop yields across the region, with grain crops particularly susceptible to climate variations (Cruz et
al 2007, 483). For example, in northern China, the agriculture-pasture land transition that signifies a
climate zone boundary is pushed southward, decreasing the stock of arable farmland and leaving
new grassland areas vulnerable to desertification in combination with human-induced degradation
(Chen 2005, 371). The direct impact on the temperature tolerance of crops is compounded by
changes to precipitation patterns, length of the growing season, the intensity and timing of extreme
weather events, and increased exposure to plant pests, weeds and diseases. The aggregate impact
of damage to agricultural systems and fisheries is likely to exacerbate food insecurity across
Northeast Asia (Cruz et al 2007, 482).
Adverse climate impacts will compromise the ability of the region’s populous states to produce
sufficient food for their large, growing populations and encourage greater reliance on imports. Given
that decreased food production is forecast for food bowl regions across the world, the increasing
reliance of regional states on food imports may in turn drive up the cost of food, pricing the
vulnerable poor out of the market (Jiang 2009, 1; Cruz et al 2007, 482). This is a recipe for
malnutrition and social unrest in countries where adaptive capacity is low (Tol et al 2004, 265).2
Also, by increasing food imports at time of tightening global supply constraints, prosperous
Northeast Asian states would be exporting the social and political problems of water scarcity and
food insecurity to other more vulnerable nations.
Hydrology and Water Sources
The climate change-altered hydrological cycle in Northeast Asia is already making the East Asian
monsoon more variable and increasing the frequency and magnitude of both extreme precipitation
and drought events. More frequent heatwave conditions are likely across the region, along with,
conversely, stronger typhoons and shorter, heavy precipitation bursts, which may increase flood risk
(Cruz et al 2007, 479). In combination with direct environmental degradation from human
development activities, these hydrological extremes will reduce the quality and availability of water
simultaneous with growing water demand due to population growth and expansion of development.
China’s water security problems are especially precarious. A quarter of the Chinese population are
dependent for their water supplies on rivers fed by glacial run-off from the Himalaya. Spring glacial
run-off will initially increase as rising mean temperatures accelerate glacial melt, along with risk of
flood in downstream areas, eventually declining however as glacial ice retreats (Cruz et al 2007,
483). By contrast, the Russian Far East to the north is home to over a quarter of the world’s fresh
water reserves, with nearly twenty percent in Lake Baikal alone (Cruz et al 2007, 472). Nonetheless,
general Northeast Asian drying trend has not escaped Siberia, which has suffered twenty seven
major droughts over the last century and is projected to experience similar pendular hydrological
extremes to those expected across China, Korea and Japan (Cruz et al 2007, 476).
Coast and Low-lying Areas
The IPCC has conservatively predicted global sea level to rise by approximately one metre over the
coming century. Sea level rise will be geographically variable because it is attributable not only to
the melting of polar land ice but also the thermal expansion of warming oceans, along with tectonic
movement and local ground subsidence in coastal areas. As a consequence, it is possible that sea
2 Tol et al. (2004, 266) define adaptive capacity as " the ability to ameliorate the negative consequences of climate change and take
advantage of the positive changes. Adaptive capacity is thought to be determined by technological ability, economic resources and their
distribution, and human, political and social capital. These matters are all better in richer countries. By implication, richer economies are
better able to protect themselves against climate change."
level rise in Northeast Asia may exceed the global mean (Cruz et al 2007, 484). Low-lying coastal
locations in Northeast Asia will be increasingly vulnerable resultant higher tides and storm surges,
exacerbating coastal erosion. Human structures in low-lying coastal areas are particularly
vulnerable, including large cities such as Shanghai, Tokyo and Seoul, vital infrastructure such as ports
and power stations, and farmland (Cruz et al 2007, 484).
Natural Ecosystems and Biodiversity
The impact of climate change on natural ecosystems and biodiversity in Northeast Asia is worrisome
due to its inevitable connection with agriculture and political decisions about land use. Climate
change is predicted to reduce the extent of forest cover across the region at the same time as
population pressure and food insecurity drive deforestation to expand agricultural production (Cruz
et al 2007, 486). Additionally, deforestation is being accelerated by land clearing for expansion of
agricultural and development activities. As already seen in North Korea, these denuded landscapes
have only a limited capacity for water absorption during heavy rains, intensified flooding events that
accelerate soil erosion of both marginal and arable land (Mansourov 2007, 9). The risk here is
expansion of desertification into deforested areas, leading to a reduction of arable land and
consequently migration of populations away from affected areas (Cruz et al 2007, 486).
In the Russian Far East, melting of permafrost may trigger a positive feedback loop, precipitating the
release of large quantities of trapped methane into the atmosphere. Such a methane “burp” would
greatly accelerate the global warming process because methane is such a powerful greenhouse gas.
This is one of a number of potential climate tipping points that could rapidly and dramatically
destabilise the Earth’s climate system (Lenton 2008).
The IPCC forecasts numerous human health issues resulting directly and indirectly from climate
change in Northeast Asia. These may include a growing incidence of hunger as food insecurity
grows, higher incidence of heat stress during in heatwave events, and higher exposure of human
populations to tropical disease vectors as the climate becomes more favourable for their northward
expansion. Warmer winter temperatures and more extreme summer heatwaves are likely to
generate adverse human health impacts across the region. Warmer winter temperatures across the
region may increase the prevalence of vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and
schistosomiasis, due to the more favourable breeding conditions of a warmer and more humid
climate for insect vectors (Cruz et al 2007, 487). Also, the increased prevalence of heatwaves
present numerous public health challenges for residents of large cities, placing increasing stress on
Any damage to human systems from climate change hazards will have flow-on socio-economic
consequences, the nature and severity of which will depend on the adaptive capacity of the location
in question. The adaptive capacity of human systems describes their ability to reduce exposure to
climate hazards, recover from losses incurred and cope with the consequences of the post-shock
environment (Garg & Halsnaes 2007, 19; Gallopin 2006, 300-1). The relationship between adaptive
capacity and the risk of harmful socio-economic consequences is inversely proportional: risk is a
product of the probability of climate hazard exposure and its expected consequences, which will
vary according to local adaptive capacity (Dewar 2003, 3). Therefore, poorly adaptive human
systems have a higher risk of experiencing deleterious consequences as a result of climate change
Decisions on adaptation are made by individuals, groups within society, organisations, and
governments on behalf of society. But all decisions privilege one set of interests over another and
create winners and losers. Thus, the effectiveness of adaptation strategies depend on the social
acceptability of options for adaptation, the institutional constraints on adaptation, and the place of
adaptation within broader economic goals. The effectiveness of adaptation also depends on
international factors such as the global economy and international politics. It therefore follows that
climate hazards will cause the greatest harm in combination with existing problems such as over-
population, demographic imbalance, poor governance, endemic poverty and lack of infrastructure
(Mazo 2010, 38; Campbell & Parthemore 2008, 14).
International Relations, Climate Change and the Finite Earth
The IPCC forecast raises an important question for the discipline of international relations: how does
international relations theory interpret the data on climate change impacts, and the more broadly
the climate change phenomenon itself? The IPCC data is an indicator of the inescapable truth that
the Earth is a closed finite system. This means there are limits to the amount of resources that can
be extracted from the Earth and the amount of pollution it can absorb, beyond which the biological
processes of the planet and the human societies that depend on them come under threat. In the
context of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, thousands of peer-reviewed academic
publications from scientists around the world, conducting independent research across numerous
scientific disciplines, consistently point the conclusion that these limits have been reached.
Climate change is forcing all humans alive today to confront a fundamental ontological question
about the human relationship with the natural world.3 The ontological assumption underpinning
modern industrial societies is that human societies exist as entities separate from and in control of
the natural world. In pursuit of perpetual economic growth humans assume a limitless Earth, open
for infinite resource exploitation and waste disposal. The Earth is the external other, an
unimportant footnote to the script of human politics and economic production. Clearly on a finite
planet these assumptions are false. As a product of that culture, modern international relations
theory has tended to follow that assumption, viewing the natural world as something unchanging,
the background scenery in front of which the play of international politics is performed. However
there is now overwhelming evidence that human-induced climate change is altering the natural
world and in turn shifting the dynamics of international politics. The discipline needs to address this
ontological problem if the broad body of international relations theory is to correctly interpret the
effects of climate change on international politics and offer appropriate prescriptive
recommendations for policy-makers.
Climate change raises three specific ontological concerns: the nature of causality in the international
political system, the agency of individual entities versus the constraints of the structure of that
system, and the possibility that the international political system and the states within it are both
whole systems in themselves and constituent parts of larger systems (Kavalski 2007, 444).
Anthropogenic climate change is a global commons problem because its causes—man-made
greenhouse gas emissions—and it impacts on human societies are distributed across the boundaries
and jurisdictions of individual states (Keohane et al 1994, 9; Vogler 2011, 14). Causality is therefore
difficult to pin down because there are multiple, non-linear paths of responsibility for the problem
that cannot be assigned to any one state. In this context, it is also not clear how the structural
anarchy of the international realm is the appropriate frame of reference for climate change when
3 Ontology is a branch of metaphysical philosophy that asks whether social entities can be said to exist in their own right, as social
constructions, or components of a larger reality (Bryman 2004, 16).
there are a host of actors within and across state boundaries that share responsibility for it. Finally,
if those actors are important to the story it means that states are not monolithic units but rather
complex entities comprised of many smaller integrated systems, as well as constituent units in larger
systems beyond the realm of international politics, as suggested above. These three ontological
problems raised by climate change will form the basis for the theory case studies below.
Theory Case Study: Realism
Realism has been the dominant paradigm in the modern study of international relations, principally
because its insights into the regularity of interstate conflict are difficult to refute when looking at the
historical record. All strands of realism converge on a similar set of assumptions about how the
international system operates. Realists see sovereign states as the primary actors in an anarchic
international system, where there is no supreme authority to adjudicate the relations between
states (Mearsheimer 2001, 30). In the absence of a supreme authority, it is material power and
military strength that are decisive in shaping the pattern of interstate relations. As a result,
insecurity pervades the system and breeds an ongoing struggle between states for power and
survival (Frankel 1996, xiii-xv).
Realist Interpretation of Northeast Asia
The Northeast Asian security milieu provides a textbook illustration of the security dilemma, where
mistrust between regional adversaries stemming from historic animosities, hostile alliance blocks
and unresolved conflicts are breeding an insecurity spiral. Mistrust between adversaries, illustrated
most prominently by the Sino-American and Sino-Japanese rivalries, has pushed regional states to
adopt defensively motivated security measures. Because of the latent distrust in the region,
opposing states often perceive these defence-oriented moves as offensive threats, which lead them
to adopt countermeasures, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy about the danger of the security
environment in which regional tensions are raised and each side becomes less secure (Waltz 1979,
186-187; Christensen 2003, 25-26).
In theory, this inevitable quest for power maximisation creates a tendency for regional states to
resist the hegemonic aspirations of their rivals, enflaming the security dilemma and consolidating
alliance blocks (Mearsheimer 2001, 34; Snyder 1997, 17). This balance of power dynamic is
exacerbated by the growing hegemonic contest between the United States and China. On the one
hand, as the reigning hegemonic state, the United States is a status quo power in the region and has
adopted policies to maintain the regional system as it is by attempting to deter or preventing the
rise of a revisionist power such as China (Russett & O’Neal 2001, 185-186). Conversely, neo-realists
may claim that rising powers such as China are likely to become frustrated by the incongruity
between their growing economic might and their inferior status in the international system, leading
to rivalry, balancing and ultimately military confrontation with the reigning hegemon (Goldstein
Defensive realism assumes that the anarchic international system provides incentives for moderate
behaviour on the part of states and thus has an inherently status quo bias. Waltz (1979) argued that
great powers will act to preserve rather than upset the balance of power in the international system,
in order to maintain their great power status. In the Northeast Asian context, defensive realists
would therefore predict a relatively stable system. The United States, despite being the dominant
actor on the world stage and master of maritime East Asia, lacks the power to directly challenge
China on the Asian mainland without incurring extraordinary costs. For similar reasons, China would
be unwise to challenge US supremacy in the East Asian littoral in the short to medium term while its
naval capabilities remain inferior to the American capability (Goldstein 1997/98, 71). The region's
middle powers are likely to hedge and promote cooperative interaction between the two larger
powers in order to forestall having to bandwagon completely with one or the other (Alagappa 2008,
38; Kim 1998, 58). The eventuating bipolar system would be characterised by cautious efforts at
power accretion between the two poles and strategic hedging between the poles and the middle
powers. What we see in actuality is widespread strategic hedging, arising in response to the bipolar
power dynamic on the one hand and the network of economic interdependence linking regional
powers on the other.
Offensive realists emphasise the inherent uncertainty that exists in interstate relations, in which
states can never be certain about the intentions of their rivals, all of whom possess some form of
offensive military capability as a function of their national defensive posture. John Mearsheimer
suggests that the combination of the anarchic system and the ambiguity of the intentions of states
armed with offensive military capabilities leads to heightened suspicion and fear among the actors in
the system, which in turn leads states to pursue offensive strategies in a never-ending bid for
hegemonic power (Mearsheimer 2001, 30-31; Friedberg 2005, 26). A Northeast Asia predicted by
offensive realism is likely to feature strong bipolar competition between the United States and
China, in which both actively try to undermine the position of the other. This would lead to hard
balancing between the US and its allies against China, Russia and North Korea on the Asian
mainland, blocs that Snyder (2009, 166) refers to as competing “security triangles.” This prediction
arises from the balance of power thesis, which asserts that China's growing economic power and
concurrent military strengthening will inevitably trigger a balancing reaction among other regional
states (Goldstein 1997/98, 63). Mearsheimer (2001, 58) suggests that it is not in the interest of the
United States to allow China to challenge its hegemonic status, which will lead to increasing tensions
at the region’s two trouble spots—the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Strait—where the two
competing blocks come into direct military contact.
Realist Predictions for Climate-altered Northeast Asia
The IPCC predictions suggest growing food, land and water scarcity pressures developing in
Northeast Asia, occurring in the context of growing global constraints in these areas. States
experiencing resource scarcities can develop exchange relationships with other countries possessing
a surplus of that resource, which can be bought or bartered for in exchange for some other resource
that the trading partner lacks. However, if a state’s key trade partner is weakened for any reason
and can no longer supply an essential import product, the dependent country is also likely to be
destabilized as a result (Catton 1982, 158-159; Diamond 2005, 14). Therefore the prospect of
increasing global scarcity pressures may push resource-dependent Northeast Asian states into a
competitive or confrontational dynamic, enflaming the regional security dilemma. In this context of
aggravated competition, the structural bias of the regional security milieu would favour the type of
unabashed hard power competition predicted by offensive realists, rather than the gradual power
accretion presupposed by defensive realism, as regional states look to secure their food, energy and
water security from a steadily shrinking resource pool.
If one loosens assumptions about agency to encompass the concept of human security, the growing
scarcity pressures indicated in the IPCC predictions do indeed foreshadow disruptions to human
well-being.4 Weakened governance and internal political unrest are possible where local institutions
are unable to cope, forcing individual communities and households to improvise their own adaptive
responses. State failure is a possible outcome in extreme cases. North Korea faces the most
4 Myers (1993, 31-32) defines human security in the following terms: “Security applies most at the level of the individual citizen. It
amounts to human wellbeing: not only protection from harm and injury but access to water, food, shelter, health, employment, and other
basic requisites that are the due of every person on Earth. It is the collectivity of these citizen needs-overall safety and quality of life-that
should figure prominently in the nation’s view of security”.
immediate state failure risk, as its weak adaptive capacity cannot buffer against increasing climate
change-driven food insecurity while the states is simultaneously hampered by a crumbling economy,
energy shortages and its own rigid political system. Such crises may force North Korea into systemic
reform, or push the regime into collapse as the totalitarian order slides into disrepair (Habib 2010,
While China may not be dangling on the precipice of state failure as is its neighbour North Korea, it
too may be weakened by human insecurity caused by climate change. China’s growing economic
and financial strength is tempered by large-scale environmental problems. However, many of these
problems, not least of which it’s large carbon footprint, can be attributed to the Chinese
government’s commitment to double-digit economic growth in order to provide employment
opportunities and maintain social stability. These environmental problems, along with official
corruption at the local level and the limited influence of the central government at the provincial
and county level has led to rising incidences of civil unrest (Economy 2007; Morton 2006). The
increasing frequency and severity of climate change impacts, along with any economic downturn
that they may bring may foreshadow further civil disturbances in the future and the weakening of
Chinese Communist Party control.
Until 2011, Japan had a strong adaptive capacity based on economic strength and technological
innovation. However, the tragic earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 and the related Fukushima
nuclear disaster have severely weakened the country’s ability to cope with future climate-related
hazards. Japan’s other key weakness is its dependency on imported primary products, most notably
oil and food. Japan is a geographically small but densely populated island-chain state that is
dependent on imports for almost all of its energy and just under half of its food supply. These
imports, as well as Japanese exports, come and go via vulnerable sea lines of communication (SLOCs)
that stretch thousands of miles from the East China Sea to the Middle East (Kim 2006, 158). South
Korea is also an economically strong and influential global middle power, but like Japan, is
constrained by natural resource import dependencies and it is also hampered by its ongoing
strategic competition with North Korea.
From a realist perspective, the potential for climate-driven human insecurity across Northeast Asia
points to increased strategic competition among regional states as they look to secure the resources
required to satisfy their peoples from a declining regional and global resource pool. If one factors in
the decline of the United States as a global power and regional balancer, there appears to be a
heavy bias toward competition and conflict in future years.
Ontological Critique: Causality and Agency
Because realists assume that states are the primary actors in the anarchic realm of international
politics, they are restricted to seeing threats only from the power maximisation strategies of other
states. However, the state is an awkward reference point as the primary actor in analysis of climate
change as an international relations problem. States are social constructions that are intangible in a
natural realm that is indivisible in terms of state sovereignty. Greenhouse gas emissions, regardless
of where they are generated, are dispersed through the atmosphere and exert influence on the
global climate as a whole (Gardiner 2008, 27). For example, greenhouse gases emitted in Melbourne
will diffuse through the atmosphere to affect global climatic perturbations not only in the
Melbourne area but over the entire planet. In fact the chain of causality for climate change is
distinctly non-linear, incorporating the policy choices of governments as well as the past and present
activities of millions of business entities and the past and present behavioural choices of billions of
people, interacting with natural processes that accelerate the release of carbon in the atmosphere in
positive feedback loops.
Addressing the causes of climate change is simply beyond the realist paradigm. Instead, what
realism has to offer is a treatment of the political symptoms of climate change as state-centric
security threats. For a climate change impact to be classified as a traditional security threat, it must
have some demonstrable connection to a vital national interest, which can be enhanced or defended
through the application of military, economic and political power (Matthew et al 2009, 7; Gleick
1991, 18). In the past, few environmental problems have satisfied that criteria because they tended
to be localised or manifest as cumulative problems over distant time horizons, neither of which
posed a threat to the core interests of states.
Other climate security studies have focused on the declining availability of food, water and energy as
the primary driver of security threats (Schwartz & Randall 2003). According to this model, when
scarcity pressures arise, competition may emerge between rival claimants of scarce resources,
resulting in violence if cooperative organs and conflict resolution mechanisms fail. Violence acts as a
negative feedback on resource scarcity, as conflicting parties increase their resource consumption to
prosecute armed campaigns and refugees fleeing conflict zones create new resource pressures in
the regions in which they settle (Brown et al 2007, 1148). Such studies are premised on the
assumption that the responses of human societies to scarcity pressures automatically lead to
violence, which does not however accord with the evidence for environment and scarcity-based
conflict (Michel 2009, 77; Yoffe et al 2003). Later studies have moved beyond the linear
relationships to suggest climate change is expected to become a stress multiplier for all countries,
with heightened risk of civil conflict in those states already at risk from internal instability and
economic weakness (Dupont 2008; Barnett & Adger 2007).
Neo-realist theorists emphasised structural factors as the driving force of international relations.
Specifically, the anarchic international system forces states to privilege survival and power
maximisation over other ends.5 But is it appropriate to assume that state interests remain fixed over
time? Successfully addressing a global problem such as anthropogenic climate change, with complex
paths of causality and geographically diffuse impacts, may favour international cooperation rather
than competition and power maximisation because traditional realist self-help strategies do little to
ameliorate the problem. The issue here is not the contest of survival between states in the absence
of a higher power, but rather an alteration of physical conditions in which this contest takes place,
cause by and impacting on all players.
With this in mind, proponents of the human security paradigm argue that the appropriate reference
point for security analysis should be the individual human being and not the state. Harmful
disruptions to human wellbeing and the patterns of daily life for individuals in vulnerable areas are
said to lie at the heart of the underlying reasons why conflict occurs. Conflict is more likely where
physical safety and secure access to food, water, housing, employment and health care are not
available (Matthew et al 2009, 377-8; Myers 1993, 31-2). The provision of these goods is usually the
jurisdiction of civilian institutions, the weakness, failure of absence of which can determine the
probability of conflict in a given context. The challenge of climate change adaptation is therefore
unlikely to be something for which military forces and hard power are ideally suited. The danger of
adhering to a realist interpretation of climate change is that by defining climate change as a
traditional security issue, states are more likely to adopt costly and inappropriate measures that may
actually harm their adaptive responses to climate change (Brown et al 2007, 1153-4).
In reality there are numerous other actors that exert influence on international politics, from
international organisations, non-government organisations, and corporations, down to domestic
5 Neorealists are divided over the structural implications of anarchy. Defensive realism assumes that the anarchic international system
provides incentives for moderate behaviour on the part of states and thus has an inherently status quo bias. Defensive realism's most
prominent adherent, Kenneth Waltz, argued that great powers will act to preserve rather than upset the balance of power in the international
system, in order to maintain their great power status. Offensive realists also regard anarchy as the structural driver of international relations,
though, in contrast to defensive realists, they see systemic incentives for power maximisation rather than mere survival (Mearsheimer 2001;
political processes and ultimately individual people. These actors operate within the confines of
numerous human systems, such as the global economy, and natural systems, such as continents,
bio-regions and ultimately the Earth as a whole. This insight requires ontological realignment for the
international relations theorist; from this point of view, entities are both wholes and parts of ever
greater wholes, simultaneously and at all times (Kavalski 2007, 444). The state is not the primary
actor on the international stage, but rather a unit with numerous constituent parts as well as itself
constituting a sub-unit of ever greater systems (see Figure 1). This realisation is inevitable once we
accept that human systems are a part of, rather than separate from, the natural world.
Figure 1: A simplified depiction of the state as a constituent component of broader ecological, economic and political systems.
Theory Case Study: Liberalism
In contrast to realists, liberals tend to see international relations in optimistic terms. Like realists,
they see the international system as anarchic but believe it is possible for states to escape the
security dilemma. They reject the realist assertion that warfare between states is inevitable and
believe that humankind can transcend conflict through the pacifying influence of economic
interdependence, international institutions and the spread of liberal democratic political systems.
Russett and O’Neal (2001, 35) argue that democracy, economic interdependence, and international
organisations should act as a "virtuous circle," a self-reinforcing positive feedback that over time will
make the international system more pacific and stable. These systemic interventions can subdue or
even eliminate the security dilemma, dramatically decreasing the threat of conflict between states.
Liberal Interpretation of Northeast Asia
The democratic peace theory is a key element of the liberal vision. It has two components, one
relating to the politically transformative power of economic development and the second to the
moderating effect of public accountability on foreign policy decision-making. First, economic
development tends to stir the desire for political rights because trade and commerce operate most
efficiently in societies that have stable, transparent governance and a strong legal system. Liberals
argue that capitalism cannot function properly without a reliable rule of law featuring courts and
enforceable contractual obligations. States that restrict political freedoms and attempt to control
information are said to be disadvantaged within the global economic system, while those that
facilitate the free flow of information and capital are rewarded with sustained economic growth.
Second, liberals believe governments that are accountable to the public through regular elections
are less likely to enter into expansionist military adventures or engage in wars of dubious strategic
value. As a consequence of democratic accountability, it follows then that democracies rarely go to
war with one another (Russett & O’Neal 2001, 82). As the number of democracies in the world
increases, as it has quite dramatically over the last two centuries, the likelihood of international
conflict should theoretically diminish.
In contrast to the pessimistic realist interpretation of international politics, liberal internationalists
see many issue areas in which states have a strong mutual self-interest in working together to
achieve absolute gains for the common good (O’Neill 2009; Keohane, Haas & Levy 1994). Liberal
internationalists believe that the volume of commerce creates a momentum toward good relations
between states, through their mutual self-interest in maintaining stability to facilitate economic
exchange. This foundation of trade, investment and exchange forms the basis for conflict resolution
and pacific relations between interdependent states (Friedberg 2005, 43).6 This proposition of the
liberal paradigm is easier to demonstrate, particularly in the Northeast Asian context. Northeast
Asia has become the locus of global economic production. The extraordinary growth of the capitalist
6 Friedberg (2005, 43) describes the pacific influence of economic interdependence in the context of US-China relations: “Assuming that
they persist and grown, the mutual gains from an expanding economic relationship will remain the single most important peace-inducing
force at work in US-China relations. The potential costs of a conflict between the two powers, especially given that both possess nuclear
weapons, should also help to keep competitive impulses within bounds and to make both sides very wary of embarking on any course
that could risk direct conflict.”
economies of Washington's East Asian allies over the last thirty years has attracted a great deal of
investment from the West, luring American companies to set up manufacturing plants and take
advantage of the lower production costs on offer. In a similar vein, China began its steep growth
trajectory in the mid-1990s and in turn lured investment from the newly-industrialised Asian
capitalist states, as well as from companies in the US. What has evolved from this process is a
complex web of economic interdependence spanning all of Northeast Asia's key players, bar North
Korea, which has reduced the likelihood of conflict because of the minimal benefits and high costs of
aggression in such an integrated economic milieu (Alagappa 2008, 42-43).
This foundation of trade, investment and exchange forms the basis for conflict resolution and pacific
relations between interdependent states. Interdependence requires international institutions to
promote rules in order to make interstate relations more stable and predictable. International
institutions are "stable sets of related constitutive, regulative and procedural norms and rules,"
often, though not always, made manifest in the form of an international organisation (Duffield 2007,
7-8). These norms, rules and procedures prescribe certain behaviour and imply obligations for states
choosing to be bound by their injunctions, which help to consolidate a congruence of interests
between states and by reducing the inherent uncertainty over intentions that plagues interstate
relations as a result of anarchy (Keohane 1984, 59). This occurs because the norms and rules that
constitute international institutions create a behavioural dynamic that is predictable and thus more
stable than one characterised by uncertainty and suspicion.
In the security realm, Northeast Asia lacks the multilateral security architecture of the type that
developed in Europe after 1945. Within the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO),
European countries such as France and Germany that had been strategic rivals for nearly a century
were able to define mutual common interests upon which to base pacific relationships. This was not
the case is East Asia, where Washington chose to pursue a series of bilateral security alliances rather
than construct a multilateral security architecture (Hemmer & Katzenstein 2002). The legacy of
Japanese imperialism was an important factor in this choice, as it was unlikely that other regional
states would enter into an alliance with a state under which they had so recently been subjugated.
It remains today that the dominant strands of nationalism on the Korean peninsula and in China
remain staunchly anti-Japanese.
Nonetheless, Northeast Asia and the broader East Asian region are being gradually enmeshed by a
multilateral “architecture,” a patchwork of multilateral institutions in the absence of an over-arching
integrated multilateral order such as the European Union (Tow 2010). This architecture
encapsulates many institutional and sub-institutional layers, from organisations such as the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the
Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), bilateral alliances like the hub-and-spokes system of
alliances maintained by the United States, and multilateral dialogues, including the Trilateral
Strategic Dialogue, the Shangri-La Dialogue and the Tripartite Summit (Bisley 2009).
On the one hand, this evolving multilateral architecture is evidence that historic animosity is being
overcome as regional states recognise mutual self-interest. On the other, it is unclear that regional
states have internalised the logic of cooperation and recognised the communal good of regional
institutionalism in its own right. Within this institutional patchwork, rival states are competing to
have their favoured model adopted as the over-arching institutional order for the region. There are
two broad groupings of competing models of institutional integration in East Asia: Pan-Asian
regionalism, which largely excludes the United States and is favoured by China, and Asia-Pacific
regionalism, which is favoured by the United States and Japan (He 2004). This institutional
competition indicates that East Asian multilateralism remains very much embedded within the
context of great power competition.
Liberal Predictions for Climate-altered Northeast Asia
Liberal international relations theory rests on three pillars--democratisation, economic inter-
dependence and institutionalism—which are all likely to be undermined by the climate change
impacts predicted by the IPCC. Let us first consider democratisation in Northeast Asia, the central
pillar of the liberal democratic peace theory. Given the predictions of declining human security
inherent in the IPCC climate forecast, there is possibility of increased incidence of social unrest and
thus a greater possibility of government crackdowns, particularly in authoritarian countries. The
evolution of democratic governance in non-democratic Northeast Asian countries, particularly China,
will not be aided by these developments.
Consider the social unrest in China related to water politics. The combination of water scarcity and
inequitable access to water resources is rapidly becoming a source of political disquiet in north-
eastern China. Water use conflicts cut across many axes, illustrated by competition between
upstream and downstream users, as well as sectoral competition between agricultural, industrial
and urban water consumers. It is the role of the Chinese government to adjudicate between
competing claims and allocate water in a fair and equitable manner, allowing scarcity stress to be
borne equally by all users (Cai 2008, 15). Yet as has been shown above, access to water is highly
unequal, causing considerable public unhappiness with the central government, culminating in an
alarming rise in social unrest linked to water and environmental grievances in recent years. Often
this has resulted when local level officials have catered to entrepreneurial interests by allowing over-
extraction and pollution, while shutting down all channels for public grievance. Pent-up grievances
have exploded into violent anger-venting riots, numbering as many as 1,000 a week across China (Yu
2008, 75-76; Economy 2007, 47).
The proliferation of widespread social unrest related to water allocation and environmental issues
represents a serious challenge to the Chinese government's nation-building strategy of maintaining
social harmony through economic development, which could undermine the authority of the
Communist Party (Economy 2007, 46). The Beijing government has increasingly viewed this kind of
social unrest as a security threat, to which it has often responded by violent crackdown. However,
by framing environmental complaints through the mindset of security, the government is closing off
opportunities for dialogue, the development of transparency and institutional reform, which would
improve the water allocation process and help to prevent major protests over water issues from
erupting (Ma 2008/09, 33).
In addition, there are questions about the ability of democratic systems to deal with climate
emergency. Shearman and Smith (2007, 123) argue that liberal democracy as a political model may
be incapable of responding to climate change because the short election cycles of liberal democratic
political systems create an in-built inertia that prevents government from tackling long-term
problems. They also argue that global environmental problems have been accelerated by the
corruption of democracy by powerful interest groups. From this perspective, China may have the
advantage over the liberal democracies of Japan and South Korea in the capacity of its government
to make rapid and decisive policy decisions.
Turning attention now to economic interdependence, the IPCC predictions for Northeast Asia point
to growing resource scarcity pressures. Inevitably, this is likely to lead to increased competition on
international markets for regionally-scarce commodities. China provides an excellent example of the
demand-side risk. Water scarcity is likely to impair China's ability to produce sufficient food for its
large and growing population. In the event of widespread food insecurity within China, domestic
demand a for food imports will divert food supplies from other countries and drive up the global
cost of food, pricing vulnerable poor people in other countries out of the market (Jiang 2009, 1).
This will in turn have serious impacts on the human security of vulnerable citizens in other net food-
importing countries, leading to social unrest and possibly malnutrition in extreme cases (Stern 2006,
p. 72). In effect, China would be exporting the social and political problems of water scarcity and
food insecurity to other more vulnerable nations. There are also supply-side risks to consider if net
food exporting countries are compelled to quarantine their produce for domestic consumption.
Brown (2009) reports that in 2007, wheat-exporting countries including Russia and Argentina limited
exports in an attempt to counter domestic food price rises, while Vietnam banned exports of rice for
similar reasons. Disturbingly, it appears that this dangerous new politics of international food
scarcity has already begun.
Climate change may also shift the calculus of investment decisions across the regional economy. A
likely adaptation decision is to shift investment from the most climate-vulnerable sectors to those
more carbon efficient or less sensitive to climate change impacts. However any efficiency gains or
risk amelioration achieved through this process may be cancelled out by declining levels of
investment and savings, as the total pool of capital available for investment and savings gets eaten
away through the absorption of climate change impacts (Stern 2006, 151-152). If regional states
legislate to price carbon in their domestic economies and internalise the cost of greenhouse gas
emissions in the cost of business for polluting industries, we may see a recalibration of the equation
of international competitiveness. In addition, the high cost of damage to coastal infrastructure
associated with industry and commerce, along with possible relocation of such facilities, are likely to
make imported products more expensive (Stern 2006, 136). With carbon and energy efficiency
factored into investment decisions along with labour and transport costs, there may be a growing
comparative advantage to manufacturing value-added goods locally rather than offshore (Rubin
What these developments portend is a possible roll-back of the web of economic interdependencies
that stretch across Northeast Asia. The growing economic linkages that have enveloped Northeast
Asia and the globe in general have taken place during a period of relative geo-political stability since
1945, under the protection of American hegemony. US hard power dominance over the capitalist
world since 1945 and more broadly since the fall of the Soviet Union allowed the development of a
US-managed liberal order—what Ikenberry (2009, 76-78) has labelled “Liberalism 2.0”—based on
Cold War multilateral alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), international
institutions including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade
Organization (WTO—formerly the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, GATT), and the US dollar
as the global reserve currency. The economic dimension of US primacy has allowed economic
cooperation in Northeast Asia to bloom over the past two decades, which, combined with advances
in rapid long-haul transportation and communication technologies have facilitated an explosion of
commerce between the region’s key players. However, as the inferred socio-economic and political
implications of the IPCC predictions indicate, this geopolitical stability can not be guaranteed in the
era of climate change.
The climate change impacts predicted by the IPCC are likely to place Northeast Asia’s under-
developed institutional patchwork under duress. The lack of a cooperative security mechanism is
significant here, in light of the predicted growth of scarcity pressures and human insecurity. While
conflict scenarios are unlikely in Northeast Asia, the underlying security dilemma nonetheless
requires regional states to carefully manage their relationships and maximise areas of common
interest. If regional affairs are poorly managed, the entropy of the security dilemma may render
conflict scenarios more likely.
Rising nationalist agitation may insularise domestic constituencies and make cooperation more
difficult, because in the two-level game of multilateral negotiations governments can only concede
as much ground as their domestic constituents will allow in reaching an agreement (Putnam 1987).
An insular and hostile domestic audience will make concessions all the more difficult to reach. Take
for example the Sino-Japanese relationship, which continues to be dogged by issues such as the East
China Sea maritime dispute and the legacy of Japanese imperialism during the first half of the
twentieth century. Indeed many Chinese analysts and popular nationalist groups have a propensity
to view Japan with a venom and distrust rarely articulated in their attitudes to other countries,
including the United States (Cole 2007, 542-544; Yang 2006, 98). Japanese nationalism is similarly
flared by China’s rapid economic growth, diplomatic influence and military projection capabilities,
which produce fears that Beijing is seeking to dominate the region (Alagappa 2008, 58), along with
the status of Japanese abductees kidnapped by North Korean agents arouses emotional and
widespread anger in Japan, a sentiment that obliges politicians of all stripes to take a hard line on
this issue and by extension the broader relationship with the DPRK (Yun 2005).
In spite of the growing architecture of multilateral regionalism in Northeast Asia, all of its players are
engaged in competition, adopting strategic hedging as their modus operandi. Indeed, none is a
strictly status quo power: China’s star is on the rise as the United States attempts to prevent the rise
of a peer competitor. Japan is edging toward normalisation while Russia is attempting to increase its
role in the region. South Korea is attempting to alter economic and political conditions within the
DPRK in anticipation of future national reunification, while simultaneously navigating between the
competing economic and security imperatives of its relationships with China and the United States.
And within this morass, North Korea has become a nuclear power. The goals of regional multilateral
fora are likely to be modest, diluted to “fit” with the pre-conceived interests of states in the form of
limited “problem-solving” measures that converge with the narrow utilitarian calculations of state
interests without disturbing the existing imperatives of regional power accretion in which those
interests are conceived (O’Neill 2009, 116-117; Eckersley 2004, 30-31). In this environment, the
threat of climate change is likely to push Northeast Asian states to hedge against the vulnerabilities
of the multilateral institutional patchwork by enhancing their hard power capabilities.
Ontological Critique: The Problem of State-centric Bias
It is difficult to avoid pessimistic conclusions about the future of liberal internationalism in a climate-
altered Northeast Asia, based on the dire predictions of regional climate change impacts described
in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. The growth of climate-induced human insecurity and scarcity
pressures suggest regional relations biased toward realist power maximisation over regional
cooperation. Yet while the climatic predictions are understandably dire, does this necessarily entail
the erosion of multilateral cooperation and a descent of regional politics into a Hobbesian
While liberalism enjoys a more sanguine view of international affairs than does realist theory, they
share the basic assumption that states with fixed national interests are the primary actors on the
global political scene. As it is for realists, this assumption is an ontological strait-jacket. Many of the
ontological criticisms of realism described above also hold true of liberalism, as a result of their
shared assumptions about the international system. When we consider the multitude of obstacles
to regional commerce thrown up by climate change, as described above, we notice the involvement
of a range of non-state actors as well as processes outside of international anarchy shaping state
interests in the regional economic milieu. The error of liberal institutionalist theory here is that state
interests are regarded as non-negotiable pillars of international interactions, to the exclusion of
natural systems and biological processes upon which those interests are founded. We have already
established, however, that human systems (states included) are a constituent component of the
broader natural world, where the logical ontological assumption of multilateral environmental
agreements would be the opposite, where states would adapt their interests to conform to the bio-
physical realities of the Earth’s natural systems. In this context, the existing order in which state
interests are conceived is part of the climate change problem itself.
Theory Case Study: Constructivism
Constructivists argue that international interactions have less to do with the balance of material
power than with the socially constructed ideas that deeply influence the decision-making and
behaviour of states. Using this logic, Wendt (1992) the most celebrated of the constructivist
theorists, claimed that the realist concept of self-help was not an inherent feature of interstate
relations but one of many possible identity roles in an anarchic security environment. The identity
of states shapes their foreign policy decision-making, because it moulds the worldviews and
preferences of national leaders (Kim 2002, 17-18). The identity roles of states arose out of their
interaction with other countries; therefore, states are bound to feel insecure if self-help is the
dominant paradigm, leading them to interpret other states as threatening and thus forcing them to
"mirror" this behaviour (Wendt 1992, 406). This identity role choice, rather than the system itself, is
what is driving the security dilemma and forcing states to adopt self-help strategies. If states were
to alter the norms and values that underscore their identity roles by defining their interests in a
different way, then, inevitably, the operation of the international system would change in the
process (Frankel, 1996, xxi). When states cooperate on the basis of mutual interest, they often
acquire norms of behaviour that transcend anarchy and become a structural feature of their
relations in themselves.
In addition, the identity roles of states are said to arise out of their interaction with other countries.
These subjective identities are shaped by three broad components. First, nationalism defines the
self-image of individuals within governments, including national leaders, which also informs their
perceptions of other states and their leaders. A firmly established national ethos is extremely
difficult to alter or remove, because its cultural transference from old to young becomes entrenched
in a nation's social system (Buzan 1991, 78). Second, a state's strategic culture informs its
perceptions about the utility of coercion and cooperation in interstate relations, based on
fundamental beliefs about the character of the international system. These beliefs are influenced by
factors such as a state's history, domestic political culture, and geopolitical setting (Macmillan et al
1999, 8). Finally, norms relate to accepted practice in relations between states and beliefs about
appropriate and legitimate behaviour in international politics (Yamin & Depledge 2004, 7).
Together, these three concepts coalesce to form a state's identity, shaping its behaviour and the
decision-making choices of its leaders.
Constructivist Description of Northeast Asia
There is a dual dynamic to international politics in present-day Northeast Asia. In the increasingly
inter-dependent economic sphere, investment and trade linkages are drawing regional states closer
together, even across traditional security cleavages. For example, the Taiwanese independence
movement has lost considerable momentum since the 1990s as many Taiwanese increasingly see
their own prosperity linked to economic engagement with mainland China. Similarly, the centripetal
pull of the Chinese economy is drawing in foreign investment from American allies South Korea and
Japan, as well as from the US itself, in spite of the simmering Sino-American rivalry. At a casual
glance, the flower of cooperation appears to be blooming as the weeds of competition and conflict
wither away. On closer inspection however, competition and conflict are never far from the surface.
National identity in Northeast Asia is a combustible mixture of ethnocentrism and xenophobia,
heavily influenced by the legacy of Japanese and Western imperialism. For example, the Chinese
national psyche has evolved from several millennia of continuous civilisation, during which time the
Chinese considered their nation to be the "middle kingdom,” the centre of the universe. However,
Chinese history from the beginning of the First Opium War in 1836 until the renaissance of the late-
Deng Xiaoping era is generally considered to be a period of national shame, during which time
foreign powers were thought to be instrumental in dislodging the Chinese nation from its rightful
position at the centre of the world (McDougall 2007, 56). An outgrowth of this shame is a virulent
anti-Japanese nationalism, stemming from the brutal Japanese occupation between 1937 and 1945.
This anti-Japanese sentiment is also shared on the Korean peninsula, which lay under Japanese
occupation for much longer than any other mainland Asian country (1910-1945).
Korean nationalism is also ethnocentric, but is split along sectarian lines between the totalitarian
North and newly-democratic South, both vying to be the legitimate face of the entire Korean nation.
Many Koreans harbour a deep-seated grudge against the Japanese, stemming from the latter’s
colonisation of the Korean peninsula in the early-20th century (Yang 1994, 131-132). The
Dokdo/Takeshima territorial dispute, the visits to the Yasukuni shrine by successive Japanese prime
ministers, and the controversy over revisionist history textbooks suggest to many South Koreans that
Japan’s view of the world has not fundamentally changed from that of its imperial heyday, and that a
remilitarised Japan would be far more dangerous than any other regional player (Kim 2008, 172).
In contrast, Japanese nationalism since World War Two has been characterised by anti-militarism
and collective pride as an economically successful trading state (Mihashita 2007, 107). Japan has
continued to indulge the United States by band-wagoning with American operations in Afghanistan
and Iraq and acceding to requests from Washington to assume more responsibility for its self-
defence, all the while leaning on the its alliance partner as the best bet for countering a resurgent
China (Kim 2008, 192; Patterson 2007, 185-190). On the other hand, Japan has built substantial
economic linkages with China, with the intention of assuaging concerns about any possible Japanese
military threat, leading to an acceleration of regional economic interdependence, as demonstrated
by flows of investment and trade (Mansourov 2005, 523). The Achilles heel of this strategy, as
mentioned above, is that the regional threat perception is likely to linger until the Japanese
government acknowledges its wartime past. As Yang Jian notes, for China, Japan’s deployment of
troops abroad is a very sensitive issue (Yang 2006, 99). North Korean bellicosity creates added
momentum in Japanese domestic politics in favour of strategic normalisation, which in turn
amplifies the concerns about Japan's intentions that are harboured by neighbouring countries. In
short, Japan's policy of strategic hedging is slowly evolving as a losing gambit, due mainly to the
inability of Japan and China to reconcile their competing strategic and economic priorities and the
tension within the Japan-US alliance.
Constructivist Prediction for Climate-altered Northeast Asia
Is it possible that a complex, mutual threat in the form of climate change could provide the impetus
needed for regional states to re-evaluate their interests and overcome the historic and cultural
baggage of past conflict? Regional states are capable of re-evaluating their interests in the context
of mutual benefit. Indeed, the past two decades in particular have seen the nascent growth of
regional cooperation within a traditionally hostile regional setting. As argued above however, it
does not appear that multilateral cooperation in Northeast Asia has evolved beyond utilitarian
gamesmanship to be valued as a good in its own right. While constructivists argue that anarchy is in
essence a ‘choice’, the cultural and historical weight of past conflicts, in combination with the
dynamics of Sino-American great power competition in the present, clearly suggest that competition
and conflict are the chosen behavioural norm in Northeast Asian relations.
It would appear then that the type of climate change impacts predicted by the IPCC Fourth
Assessment would be a disincentive for states to choose alternative modes of interaction.
Institutional cooperation exists on the policy menu for most regional states. Recognition of common
threat and mutual benefit in cooperation could lead to enhanced regional cooperation. However,
material pressures and their attendant bias toward aggressive, exclusionist national identity, in the
context of historic animosity, are likely to reinforce confrontational behavioural norms at the
expense of embryonic institutionalism. Let us consider the competing and antagonistic nationalisms
of regional states. State interests are subject to change, based on the contest of interests at the
domestic level that in turn influence a state’s foreign policy position. Climate change impacts
leading to growing scarcity pressures and human insecurity are likely to combine with pre-existing
socio-economic weaknesses to fan the flames of aggressive nationalism. The severity of the
nationalist upwelling will depend on the result of the contest of ideas at the domestic level. Here,
sub-state actors can become agents in the process of tipping the balance one way or the other.
Ontological Critique: The Earth as both System and Actor
In a practical sense, constructivists are open to a broader chain of causality of international threats
than realists and liberals because they recognise the salience of non-state actors in international
affairs. When the holistic interpretation of the state as a whole of smaller systems and a component
of larger ones is applied, we see that the state itself is a social construction. It has only existed in its
modern form from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and has evolved in form since that time, shaped
by the forces of the Enlightenment, colonialism, industrialisation and technological advancement.
Because states are a social construct, constructivists argue that their interests and identities are not
fixed. These interests and identities are a product of many influences over and above any
structural imperatives of the international system, from the pull of non-state actors to the
preferences of national leaders and the opinions of the masses (O’Neill 2009, 130; Eckersley 2004,
34/35). In turn, these socially-produced interests and identities shape the foreign policy decision-
making of states (Kim 2002, 17-18). Fundamentally, all social actors in the international system are
said to be reflexive, able to pro-actively shape as well as adapt to the international circumstances
(Eckersley 2004, 35). As the IPCC data suggests, it is highly likely that the non-state actors which
shape the interests and identities of states will have their preferences altered by climate change,
which will express itself in the foreign policy calculations of regional states.
As we see in Northeast Asia, even in the authoritarian regimes of the region, governments are bound
to some extent by the preferences of alternative actors, be it the Chinese government considering
the interests of the People’s Liberation Army or even nationalist protests in its foreign policy
calculations, to public anger in Japan over the North Korean abduction cases or in South Korea over
the Dokdo dispute with Japan. No government is a monolith; they are made up of competing
departments and institutions, led by people with often conflicting personalities and goals, which are
accountable to varying degrees, directly or indirectly, to their citizens. The interplay between these
constituents of government leaves an unavoidable fingerprint on foreign policy decision-making
(Putnam 1988; Keohane, Haas & Levy 1994, 7; Allison & Zelikow 1999, 256).
Through multilateral agreements, states may change their understanding of and their relationship to
other states, in ways that transform their understanding of their own interests and identities. If
states were to alter the norms and values that underscore their identity roles by defining their
interests in a different way, then, inevitably, the operation of the international system would change
in the process (Frankel 1996, xxi; O’Neill 2009, 11). In the case of climate change, this will require
not only a reorientation of regional states’ perceptions of each other, but also a new understanding
of the place of human societies as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the natural world. The Earth can no
longer be ignored as a given in at the ontological level of international relations. It is therefore both
the stage on which the performance of international relations takes place, as well as an actor in that
performance because it is changing and therefore influencing the interactions of the other players.
From the theory case studies above, analysts are likely to view Northeast Asia as a progressively
more Hobbesian regional system as a result of growing scarcity pressures and human insecurity in
the absence of an ontological reassessment of international relations as a system of constituent
parts including but not restricted to states, as well as a constituent part in its own right of the larger
Earth system. Competition and conflict rather than cooperation appear more likely in a climate-
altered Northeast Asia, because of the predicted increase in resources scarcity pressures and human
insecurity portended in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, as well as the long history of animosity
between regional states and the under-development of multilateral institutions across the region.
However, rather than push the region toward greater instability, climate change may in fact provide
the impetus for regional cooperation. The realist bias could be overcome if states national interests
are re-evaluated via the agitation of sub-state actors in the domestic politics of regional states as
well as the socialisation of states within the nascent multilateral architecture of the region. To
achieve the cooperative outcome, all key actors need to recognise three key points: (1) climate-
related threats to state interests are not the fault of any one state or group of states, but are arising
from global sources outside of the anarchic system of sovereign states; (2) the agency of individual
actors in the international system—state and non-state alike—can influence international affairs as
much as the structural imperatives of that system; and (3) that the international political system and
the states within it are both whole systems in themselves and constituent parts of larger systems.
This is not just a challenge for international relations theory, but for all human beings alive today
who are being forced to confront the fundamental ontological question about the human
relationship with the natural world.
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