TAIPEI - An agreement among Southeast Asian leaders this month to fight floating plastics in the South China Sea and surrounding waterways marks an upswing in cooperation among countries that normally compete over sovereignty.
Heads of state from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) noted "progress" at their annual summit November 2-3 in "enhancing environmental protection and cooperation" including on reducing marine debris, the association chairman's statement says. In June the countries had signed a declaration on fighting marine debris including a buildup of floating plastics.
Association members Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines dispute sovereignty over parts of the South China Sea, a 3.5 million-square-kilometer waterway rich in fisheries and energy reserves. They also contest the claims of China, which calls nearly the whole sea its own.
An effort to rid plastics will bind those countries together as they face a common threat to fisheries and coastal tourism, both economic staples, analysts say.
"I think there is an urgent realization to do something to clean up the plastic debris in our seas," said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, fellow with the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. "We are among the top 10 polluters, dumping a lot of plastics back into the sea and they wash up into our tourist beaches. That's our problem."
Perception of urgency
Malaysia and Vietnam along with fellow association members Indonesia and Thailand have become "target countries" for waste export since China banned the import of plastic waste through its 2018 National Sword policy, Nazia Hussain, senior Analyst with the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, wrote in a November 11 study.
China now blocks most plastics that once reached its recycling processors. The processors had handled nearly half the world's recyclable waste - a $200 billion industry - over the past quarter century, according to Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies research published in March.
Countries with fast-growing consumer populations also eject their own trash into the sea, Chalermpalanupap said. Indonesia and Thailand rank among the world's top polluters, he added. People on land should use fewer plastic bags and dispose of waste in ways that don't kill fisheries or upset tourists, he said.
"The floating plastic rubbish is very apparent, and it's definitely coming to the surface and demanding immediate attention," said Stuart Orr, business and law professor at Deakin University in Australia.
Non-degradable floating trash kills commercially trawled fish as well as bigger species such as the Dugong, a marine mammal, Chalermpalanupap said..
In Vietnam, with a coastline of nearly 3,500 kilometers, so much trash washes up that along some beaches the sand is barely visible, even near resort zones. In some parts of the country people stockpile trash to sell for creating new merchandise.
But Vietnamese citizens now want stronger environmental protections, said Adam McCarty, chief economist with Mekong Economics in Hanoi.
"In social attitudes and values and environmental opinions, the new generation of Vietnamese who are all 30-something and younger, have international values and promote issues like this." McCarty said.
How to cooperate
The declaration signed in June calls for protection, restoration and "sustainable use" of the marine environment. It asks the association and individual countries to help. They should find "land-to-sea" solutions, prioritize recycling programs and tap into public-private partnerships, the declaration text says.
Per the chairman's statement on November 3, ASEAN leaders at the summit "looked forward to the expeditious implementation" of the agreement.
Refusal of trash imports from the West is shaping up as part of the resistance. Malaysia is trying to stop factories from burning plastic without permits. Thailand will ban foreign plastic waste by 2021, with Vietnam to follow by 2025.
ASEAN members will probably feel a burst of cooperative spirit as they cut back plastic marine waste, Orr said, but over time go back to older, tougher disputes.
Over the past few years, for example, Vietnamese fishing boats have tested the patience of Malaysia and the Philippines by venturing into those countries' waters. Vietnam and sometimes the Philippines advocate that ASEAN openly resist the Chinese maritime claims, while Malaysia, Brunei and others prefer to set aside mentions of sovereignty and seek deals with China instead.
However, if parties work together often enough, they tend to build up enough confidence to get real things done, Orr said.