Monday, April 03, 2006

Michael Richardson: Exercise in stemming spread of mass destruction weapons

Fighter jets will roar into action in the skies around Darwin, in northern Australia, this week as countries worried about the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) hold their latest training exercise to disrupt the illegal trade in materials and technology used to make nightmare arms.

Australia will host the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) operation that starts today. Other countries taking part include Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and the United States.

All are concerned at the growing international trade in goods destined for Iran, North Korea and elsewhere, allegedly to make chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear bombs and the means to deliver them, including ballistic missiles. The ultimate fear is that terrorist groups will get and use mass casualty weapons.

The Darwin-based activity will culminate on Thursday when Australian fighter jets force an aircraft suspected of carrying a WMD cargo to land in Darwin. In this case, the suspect plane will be a New Zealand Air Force Boeing 757.

The exercise will involve customs, police and specialised response personnel from various countries. It will test inter-agency and international procedures for detecting and intercepting an illicit shipment of a WMD-related cargo by air.

The last PSI operation in Southeast Asia, in waters off Singapore in August, involved tracking, boarding and searching a ship suspected of carrying chemicals that could be used to make weapons.

Since then, law enforcement agencies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia have launched numerous raids, searches and prosecutions to stop and punish attempts by individuals and companies to bypass national export control laws and sell materials and technology to Iran, North Korea and other countries for their WMD and missile programmes.

In Japan, for example, police searched the offices of two trading companies in February on suspicion they had illegally exported equipment to North Korea that could be used to produce biological weapons.

The PSI, unveiled by US President George Bush in May 2003, is intended to act as a safety net when export controls and other counter-proliferation laws and mechanisms fail.

Leading participants say that PSI co-operation takes place within existing national and international law. It means that an air interception of the kind being practised over northern Australia this week could only happen with the agreement of the state in whose airspace the operation is to take place. This, of course, limits the areas in which PSI interdictions can legally occur.

But more than 70 of the 191 member states of the United Nations have reportedly said they support the PSI in principle and are prepared to take part in legitimate seizures.

The supporters of the arrangement say that participating countries control enough sea, land and airspace to "catch" most international shipments - if they can be detected and enough information is passed in time to the Government with the authority to make the seizure.

The 20 full partners in the PSI include some of the world's leading military and economic powers. Among them are Russia, Germany, France, the US and Japan.

Yet China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and some other Asian countries that say they oppose proliferation remain reluctant to be openly associated with a US-sponsored programme like the PSI.

They fear it may override national sovereignty and freedom of navigation, or they do not want to be tagged a follower of the US.

As convenor of the six-party talks on Korea, China is wary of joining the PSI because this would be taken by North Korea as a partisan and provocative move. South Korea shares China's concern.

However, a senior US official said in August that China fully understood the legal basis of the PSI and was becoming increasingly co-operative in responding to proliferation challenges..

It is significant that as more Governments have come to understand and see how the PSI works in practice, the number of states endorsing its voluntary principles has grown.

This could be hastened in the Asia-Pacific region if PSI members like Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore intensified efforts to explain to countries that have not joined the coalition why it was formed, its aims and the way it works.

This would help reduce the impression that the PSI is a US-centred and dominated operation.

They should also be encouraged to send observers to PSI training exercises.

It would also help if assistance was offered to countries that need it so they can improve their capabilities to support PSI actions. The assistance could be training, equipment or grants and cover law enforcement, intelligence and military co-operation.

The US and Australia already give this kind of support to enable some countries to achieve the standards needed to participate in the Container Security Initiative, introduced by the Bush Administration after al Qaeda attacked the US in September 2001.

The CSI is designed to prevent terrorists from planting WMD in cargo containers that carry much of the world's trade.

* Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

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