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Pandemic Gives Rise to Non-Traditional Security Concerns in the Indo-Pacific

Climate, health, and economic crises could well trigger societal and political instability, which in turn has the potential to increasingly threaten regional security and stability.




The 2020-2021 pandemic continues to illustrate how a non-traditional security issue, by the name of a contagion, can profoundly impact human survival and the well-being of peoples and countries. 

COVID-19 has resulted in nearly 2.5 million deaths globally, according to the latest figures. The pandemic has destabilized global economies, with poverty and hunger reaching unprecedentedly disturbing levels, thereby highlighting that the socio-economic impact has been far more devastating than the pandemic itself. 

This could well trigger societal and political instability, which in turn has the potential to increasingly threaten the security and stability in and around the Indo-Pacific.

The end of the Cold War opened new facets of security, given the nature of the discourse, which expanded in ways that pushed frameworks beyond state and military security. These now pose threats to the survival and development of sovereign states and humankind as a whole. 

Non-traditional security ー not stemming from competition between states or shifts in the balance of power ー was primarily defined in political and socioeconomic terms. The beginning of the 1990s marked a systemic shift in the study and analyses of security and the world order to crucially encompass non-traditional factors in the traditional security frameworks.

Coming to the fore in 2021, non-traditional security issues are racing past the traditional ones in terms of policy impact and the need for global solutions. As a consequence, this is the year that issues of climate change and human epidemics are likely to take centerstage. 

2020 underscored that the referent of security is no longer just the state in terms of national sovereignty or territorial integrity, but also the people, their survival, well-being, and dignity, both at the individual and societal levels. 

A non-traditional security issue has challenged the very survival of people and states. It is transnational in nature and scope, defies unilateral remedies and requires comprehensive political, economic, social responses.


When French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the 2021 Davos Agenda Summit of Global Leaders, his focus on tackling inequality and climate change were manifest in the larger ambit of linkages to the pandemic. The crisis has been a far deeper, moral, impact in addition to economic ones. Macron highlighted that in the race between shareholders and consumers, it is the planet that has paid the price, taking into account the social, environmental, and democratic impacts.

In a similar allusion, hours after being inaugurated President of the United States, Joe Biden decided to have the U.S. re-enter the Paris Agreement, in what became another key pointing to the centrality of climate change in this year’s global discussions. Human-induced disturbances to the fragile balance of nature that are difficult to reverse or repair hold dire consequences for both states and societies. 

Torrential rains pound Kumamoto in July 2020
Second wave of the coronavirus hits Europe with devastating consequences.

The climate change agenda for that matter will have an impact on Asia’s regional agenda, with climate equities likely to be a key point of discussions in the Biden administration’s approach in the United Nations National Security Council, even on security issues.

In reference to this, Japan is warming up. The Japanese mean annual temperature has increased by about 1.0° C over the last century. 

Observed increases in both land and sea temperatures, and the volume of precipitation, have changed the environment. Projected changes will lead to substantial socio-economic consequences and changes to the natural environment. Warming temperatures, rising sea levels, changes in rain and snowfall patterns and extreme weather events are predicted to affect Japan in many ways. 

The array of sectors in Japan likely to be affected by these changes include agriculture, human health, infrastructure, tourism, forest growth, wildlife migration patterns, and fisheries, among others.

Shipping containers are seen lined up at a port in Tokyo. REUTERS/Issei Kato/File Photo
Protesters in Hong Kong after China takes advantage of global preoccupation with COVID-19 (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

The upcoming 2021 Copenhagen Democracy Summit scheduled in May takes on the same concerns. The agenda is dedicated to strengthening the resolve of the world’s democracies by providing a high-level strategic forum giving exclusive focus to the “cause of democracy.” 

Given its agenda, this summit will be a vital defining event of this year for opening debate in a symbiotic way among countries with shared values. The Copenhagen Summit is likely to discuss the future of global democracy, of U.S. leadership, post-COVID recoveries, and the significance of democratic trust.

In all, there are sufficient pointers that the agendas of global health, climate change, and democracy will be the highlights of 2021. And these are being taken up visibly on par with the traditional security challenges that confront the Indo-Pacific. 

While discussing the newer elements and concepts in the future of the Indo-Pacific in 2021, elements of both “continuity” and “changemust be taken into account. Non-traditional security is fast crystallizing as the change part of this structured security classification.


Author: Dr. Monika Chansoria

Dr. Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) in Tokyo. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of The Japan Institute of International Affairs or any other organization with which the author is affiliated. She tweets @MonikaChansoria.  Find other articles by Dr. Chansoria here on JAPAN Forward.


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