Climate change is more of a threat to the Indo-Pacific region than a great power war, the president of the Pacific’s Federated States of Micronesia has warned in an interview with The Telegraph.
“Saving humanity is way paramount and more important than the geopolitical competitions that happen around the world,” said President David Panuelo, urging the United States and China to “cooperate and lead” in the fight against the global climate crisis.
Ahead of the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow in November, Pacific Island nations are struggling to be heard above the voices of powerful, industrialised nations who are equally eyeing Indo-Pacific outposts to help project their political and military power.
President Panuelo stressed that as vital as his nation’s islands are to the defence of a free and open Pacific, they are also disappearing.
Houses were already being inundated with salt water and staple crops on outer islands being ruined by rising sea levels, creating food insecurity, he said.
“Our fight and challenge on climate change might be more challenging than we felt through the second world war,” he warned.
His nation barely tops 100,000 citizens spread across 607 islands, but it has outsized significance not only as a bellwether of global warming but also for the tactical advantages offered by its location at the heart of a region where the U.S and China are competing for military dominance.
The country’s waters occupy more than 1,000,000 square miles of ocean, containing a patchwork of vital trade routes. A key battleground during World War 2, Micronesia remains a strategic axis for rival regional nations and its defence is crucial to Australia’s security.
President Panuelo’s comments were made a few weeks after signing a deal with the U.S Indo-Pacific command to collaborate on plans “for more frequent and permanent US armed forces presence” both “temporarily and permanently” on the archipelago.
Defence experts have long touted the value of spreading US military personnel and assets across a wider range of Pacific Island bases as the U.S seeks to expand its military footprint and build a more effective deterrent against Chinese military power.
The president said the new agreement could cover everything from increased coastguard resources to tackle illegal fishing, to improving critical infrastructure including air and seaports that would offer greater agility to the U.S military.
He said his country wanted to ensure free access high seas trade routes, but that “we don’t want to invite the kind of competition that can disharmonise unity and peace.”
The World Bank’s Groundswell report, released in September, predicted climate change could displace 48.4 million in the Pacific and East Asia by 2050.
“Who is going to be able to eat money when our support system is decimated on this planet? Our life support system is right there on the land and in the water and in the air. If that’s all gone then the world is going to feel the pinch and especially the bigger countries,” said President Panuelo.
In 2019, a report by the RAND corporation, a U.S think tank, described a “power projection superhighway running through the North Pacific,” urging the government to open “open a productive new chapter” of engagement with the FSM, Marshall Islands and Palau in its rivalry with China.
All three nations are closely linked to the United States through treaties known as Compacts of Free Association (COFA), that grant the Pentagon virtually unrestricted military access in exchange for a security guarantee and benefits for their citizens.
Their global prominence has continued to rise as major powers pivot their focus on the Indo-Pacific, and amid a growing tapestry of alliances against Chinese regional hegemony, including the recently unveiled “Aukus” defence partnership between the UK, Australia and the U.S.
Heino Klinck, former U.S deputy assistant secretary of defence for East Asia, described the pact as an additional piece on the “geopolitical chessboard of competition with China” which would provide Australia with a capability that helped counter the “tyranny of distance” in the vast Indo-Pacific region.
The FSM, sitting north of Australia and east of the Philippines, forms part of the “second island chain” that U.S military strategists view as a critical line of defence against Chinese advances across the Pacific.
A greater U.S military presence on these islands “changes the strategic landscape and provides us with more flexibility and it complicates the Chinese calculus,” said Klinck.
Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official whose new book, “The Strategy of Denial,” focuses on U.S-China confrontation, said Micronesia offered the U.S military “defensive depth” in the region as Beijing built up a formidable naval force.
The People’s Liberation Army was “now a power projection military,” he said. “They are building a military to go throughout the region and beyond,” he added, referring to three aircraft carriers by the middle of the decade, and nuclear submarines.
“The PLA is the most formidable force since the Red Army and certainly has more maritime capability that the Soviets ever had. We’re talking about a superpower.”
President Panuelo acknowledged the security challenge but, as the sole COFA state to have formal relations with China, he hopes to straddle the interests of the competing superpowers, especially on climate change.
“With the U.S and China, I tell them to compete but on responsible terms. Compete on trade and improving our environment,” he said, adding that the climate crisis trumped traditional security as the world’s “greatest existential threat.”
“We’d like to think [industrialised nations] have the wisdom to care for themselves, for their neighbours and for our planet because what good is competition in the military form if there are bigger issues like climate change?” he said.