The president of the Philippines was threatening to declare war on Canada this week if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn’t take care of a big pile of garbage.
Following years of calls from environmental groups, anger from local politicians and a Filipino court order, dozens of shipping containers full of Vancouver trash are still sitting in the port of Manila.
Most recently, President Rodrigo Duterte said if it’s not gone in a week he will “set sail” himself to dump the trash back on Canadian soil. “We’ll declare war against them,” he said during a news conference on Tuesday. “I will not allow that kind of s–t.”
What is Canadian garbage even doing there?
More than 100 containers, shipped to Manila by a private Canadian company, were seized by customs officials in 2013 and 2014. They had been labelled “scrap plastic materials for recycling,” but actually contained household waste, including, allegedly, some toxic materials.
For years, the Philippines complained, and in 2016, a court ordered that Canada should pay to have the garbage shipped back. Meanwhile the company that shipped it in the first place, Chronic Inc., denied it sent anything other than plastic. According to a government official who is not authorized to talk on the record, the government’s understanding is the company no longer exists, and the problem is going to be dealt with bilaterally.
Some of shipping containers’ contents ended up in a local landfill, part of an attempt to have it disposed of in a cheaper, more environmentally friendly way, but most of it remains in the containers. For local authorities, allowing a rich country to get away with just dumping the trash does not make for good optics.
Did Canada break international law?
If the containers were mislabelled and toxic waste was inside of them, then Canada likely violated the Basel Convention, an international hazardous waste treaty, the Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation told The Canadian Press last week.
Sabrina Kim, a spokeswoman for Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, said Canada is collaborating with the Philippines government and is aware of the court order. “Currently, a joint technical working group, consisting of officials from both countries, is examining the full spectrum of issues related to the removal of the waste with a view to a timely resolution,” she said. “In 2016, we amended our own regulations around hazardous waste shipments to prevent such events from happening again. We are committed to working collaboratively to ensure the material is processed in an environmentally responsible way.”
Under the Basel Convention, if parties can’t reach a peaceful agreement, they can take matters to the International Court of Justice. As of Wednesday, the government official said things were looking good for a resolution within weeks, not months, which “will most probably require Canada to take back the waste.” We’re probably going to miss Duterte’s deadline, though.
Is the president seriously thinking of declaring war over this?
Often compared to his United States counterpart, Donald Trump, Duterte is known for his temper and casual insults. He made headlines, for example, when he called Barack Obama a “son of a whore” in 2016.
Canadian garbage is a hot enough issue in the Philippines that Duterte made its removal one of his campaign promises the same year. Talking about the trash on Tuesday, he said Canadians can “eat it if you want to,” and recommended Ottawa organize a gala reception upon its arrival.
Because of his general attitude, observers aren’t taking the calls for literal war all that seriously.
But what about some kind of trade war?
If Duterte doesn’t start a costly international arbitration process, prepare his battleships, or, for that matter, just put the garbage on a boat himself, there are other ways for the Philippines to mess with Canada. Messing with the trade relationship wouldn’t be a particularly smart one, said Carlo Dade, a trade expert at the Canada West Foundation.
The Philippines has a surplus in the goods trade — it exports $1.3 billion of merchandise to Canada, more than double the $626 million Canada sends. However, Canada is home to more than 558,000 Philippines-born immigrants, according to 2016 census data. And Statistics Canada reported last week that Canadian residents sent $1.2 billion in remittances to the Philippines in 2017, more than to any other country.
“It’s really the remittance angle, so, personal angle, that is the most important and the most vulnerable in the relationship. They don’t want anything upsetting remittance flows,” said Dade. “I don’t see this really going much more than a symbolic pissing contest.”
Are there other ways they could try to punish Canada?
Duterte could seek to damage Canada’s attempts to cozy up to several Asia-Pacific groups, Dade supposed, including a possible trade negotiation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which the Philippines is a member, and the East Asia Summit, which Canada hasn’t been invited to. Or, if he really thought he would score domestic points for it, Duterte might consider expelling a Canadian diplomat or two.
But the Canadian government has not seen any signs of such moves, the official said. “Beyond the comments from the president, I don’t think there have been any indications that there may be potential diplomatic ramifications. … We are very hopeful that’s not the case.”
In any case, Dade mused, Duterte is probably getting more political benefit from his “standing up to Canada” rhetoric than he would if he actually acted on it. “There’s no love lost, there. Taking a shot at Mr. Environment, Mr. Global Green Go-To Guy, taking (Trudeau) down a peg internationally isn’t the worst thing that could fall into Duterte’s lap,” he said.