• James Balzer

The Intraregional Climate-Security Nexus in ASEAN: A Call for Renewed Security Multilateralism


The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) exists at the forefront of prolific climate change threats. There are increasing concerns of how this might influence sustained regional security (IMCCS 2020a; IMCCS, 2020b; Galgano, 2019). Notably, resource scarcity is considered a major catalyst for conflict and instability; it is something multilateral organisations such as ASEAN already face, and will continue to face in more extreme manners (IMCCS, 2020a; JICA, 2018). These threats compound upon regional “axes of vulnerability,” including poverty, social inequity, environmental degradation, economic promiscuity and infrastructural inadequacies (see IMCCS, 2018b). Under this pretense, this article explores new multilateral frameworks to engender resilience processes and outcomes across ASEAN countries, as a medium for stronger regional security. Notably, it provides recommendations for a reconsideration of multilateral security policies, mitigating climate-related conflict through the lens of ‘resilience thinking’.

The Climate-Security Nexus in ASEAN

According to the IMCCS (2020a, p.42), the Indo-Asia Pacific region “is on the front lines of combating acute climate change challenges contributing to instability, migration and conflict”. The region is the world’s most disaster prone region, which is especially pertinent in the context of ASEAN. In 2018, extreme weather displaced more than six million residents in five southeast Asian countries. Likewise, more chronic crises such as drought and riverine floods are pressing concerns for ASEAN (see World Resources Institute, 2021). Figure 1 further demonstrates climate risk across ASEAN.

Figure 1: Regional Climate Change Vulnerabilities. Source: IMCCS (2020b).

Countries such as Vietnam are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and saltwater intrusion into freshwater supplies and arable land, especially in the Mekong River Delta. This is notably pernicious given the high-dependency of the region on fish. Vietnam is also the most sensitive country in the world in relation to shocks and stresses in fish supply, regarding both economic and food security. This is also underpinned by ocean acidification and temperature increases damaging reefs and fish stocks (IMCCS, 2020a).

Additionally, the role of climate change on water stress in the Tibetan Plateau has exacerbated water crises throughout ASEAN countries (IMCCS, 2020a). Tibet is often referred to as the ‘third pole’, holding the third largest amount of ice reserves in the world. Projections highlight at least 33% of Tibet’s remaining 46,000 glaciers will be disappearing over the next 75 years. This ice is the source of Asia’s ten major rivers supporting almost two billion people, the geographic extent of which can be seen in Figure 2 (IMCCS, 2020a). Major river flows will decrease with the cumulative effects of decreasing snow and rain falls on the Tibetan plateau, along with glacial melting. The Mekong flow could shrink from 16% to 24% by 2050, affecting 60 million people (IMCCS, 2020a). There are growing concerns of this trend’s impact on regional resource provision and security, and possible conflict instigated by it (IMCCS, 2020a). 25% of global water-related disputes during the last 50 years have resulted in some form of hostility, and 37 of them resulted in military conflict (Galgano, 2019). This emphasises the role water security plays in sustained climate security.

Figure 2: Geographic Distribution of Rivers Derived from the Tibetan Plateau. Source: IMCCS (2020a).

Furthermore, in areas such as Thailand, areas exposed to coastal flooding will increase by 37% by 2100, and Bangkok could lose 40% of its land (IMCCS 2020b). Bangkok is also the 7th most exposed to climate change impacts in the world. There are concerns about civil unrest and climate refugee crises, and the role these events play in ASEAN’s sustained security (IMCCS, 2020b). Additionally, flow-on effects from these aforementioned extreme events can lead to higher food prices and adverse economic outcomes. This is especially in more agrarian economies and communities, at micro, meso and macro levels, further driving climate-related insecurity (Koubi, 2019; JICA, 2018).

Currently, Indo-Asia Pacific does not benefit from collectively well-established security institutions or multilateral arrangements to address concerns of climate security. This is particularly regarding matters surrounding trade, territorial claims and migration (IMCCS, 2020a). Likewise, in ASEAN, defence ministers have been reconsidering intra regional security policy to consider ‘non-traditional security threats’ (IMCCS 2020b). However, this has not directly addressed climate change, and leaves room for further reconsideration of ASEAN’s multilateral security arrangements in the Anthropocene.

Recommendation - Alignment of Multilateral ‘Resilience Thinking’ with Regional Security Discourse

The growth of ‘Resilience’ as a policy discourse seeks to counteract the emergence of mega-threats such as climate change. Resilience describes the capacity for societies to function, so that people from all backgrounds and demographics can survive and thrive irrespective of the stresses or shocks they encounter (Rockefeller Foundation, 2015). This will reinforce societal, and hence intraregional, security in ASEAN. Particularly, The Rockefeller Foundation (2015) and UN Habitat (2017) provides frameworks for systems resilience, which ASEAN should utilise to underpin strategic climate security (see Figure 3 & Figure 4).

Figure 3: The Rockefeller Foundation 'City Resilience Framework'. Source: The Rockefeller Foundation (2015).

Figure 4: UN Habitat Resilience Framework. Source: UN Habitat (2017).

Appropriating the propagations of UN Habitat (2017), resilience capacity should largely be determined by:

  1. The amount of disturbance a system can absorb and still remain within the same state;

  2. The degree to which the system is capable of self organisation;

  3. The ability to build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation.

Under the guise of these principles, commentators argue there should be a re-shift of ASEAN militaries primarily focusing on ‘response’ and ‘recovery’ roles, to more ‘reduction’ and ‘readiness’ roles in the context of climate security (IMCCS, 2020b; UN Habitat, 2017) (also see Figure 5). This implies using military forces to preemptively engender risk mitigation and resilience instilment across ASEAN. Avenues for achieving such include reconnaissance operations in high-risk areas, identifying necessary capabilities given prospective risks.

The benefits of using the military include the use of reconnaissance operations in a disaster area: to identify specific capabilities required, including socio-economic, environmental and infrastructural inadequacies (IMCCS, 2020b).

Figure 5: Different Types of Disaster Risk Management and Resilience. Source: IMCCS (2020b).

The last decade has seen a growth in regional agreements and initiatives serving as legal and organisational foundations for effective disaster resilience. These include the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) and a Joint Task Force to Promote Synergy on HADR in the ASEAN region (see IMCCS, 2020a). While these arrangements intend to enhance civil-military coordination in humanitarian response operations in the region, there is still a lack of coherent alignment with climate change projections and current impacts (IMCCS, 2020a). In strategically aligning with this threat, and further focusing on preemptive resilience engenderment, ASEAN’s regional security outcomes can become more effective in the age of the Anthropocene.


The multidimensional vulnerabilities of ASEAN create a context potentiating intraregional conflict in the coming decades. The proximate factors creating vulnerability are a possible genesis point for disgruntlement and desperation, and can create new tensions as well as exacerbate existing ones. In particular, the nexus of social, economic and environmental perturbations can catalyse conflict, at both macro and micro scales. This is particularly in the context of natural disaster and resource scarcity.

This necessitates ASEAN to reinforce its multilateral engagement on the climate-security nexus, especially regarding pre-emptive mitigation. ASEAN should consider taking its existing emphasis on intra regional dialogue and security, but more stringently align it with climate change prospects. This is especially under the guise of ‘resilience’, and the use of multilateral military efforts to preemptively engender such, mitigating underlying risks of the climate-security nexus.

Disclaimer: The author of this article is an employee of the Australian Government. However, this article represents his individual opinion and research, and was not written on behalf of the Australian Government. Therefore, it does not necessarily represent the perspective or standpoint of the Australian Government.


Galgano, F. (2019). The Environment-Conflict Nexus: Climate Change and the Emergent National Security Landscape, Springer.

International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS) (2020a). The World Climate and Security Report 2020.

International Military Council on Climate and Security (2020b). Climate and Security in the Indo-Asia Pacific.

Japan International Cooperation Agency (2018). Guidebook for Urban Resilience: Building Disaster and Climate Resilient Cities in ASEAN.

Koubi, B. (2019). Climate Change and Conflict, Annual Review of Political Science, 22(3), 343-360.

The Rockefeller Foundation (2015). City Resilience Framework.

UN Habitat (2017). Trends in Urban Resilience 2017.

World Resources Institute (2021). Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas.

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