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– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
Interdiction Initiative Starts to Take Shape
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Wade Boese

Aiming to give sea legs to their evolving effort to intercept global shipments of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), ballistic missiles, and related technologies to terrorists and countries of proliferation concern, participants of the 11-country Proliferation Security Initiative held their first maritime interdiction exercise in September. The group also approved a broad set of principles to guide their actions under the U.S.-led initiative.

In the Coral Sea on Sept. 12-13, a U.S. Navy destroyer joined ships from Australia and the Japanese Coast Guard, as well as French and Australian aircraft, in hunting down, boarding, and seizing the cargo of a merchant vessel pretending to carry WMD-related goods in an exercise dubbed “Pacific Protector.” Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom—the other seven members of the initiative—sent observers.

Pacific Protector marked the first in a series of 10 exercises envisioned over the next several months. Two are tentatively scheduled for October. France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States will lead some of the future practice interdictions, which will include ground, air, and sea scenarios.

The exercises’ objectives are two-fold. They are designed to improve the 11 countries’ capabilities to coordinate and carry out interdictions together and send a signal to potential proliferators that heightened attention is being paid to their dealings.

Senior U.S. government officials recently have argued that the initiative and its exercises are intended make proliferators take greater pains to hide their trade, making it more arduous and less profitable.

Though the initiative is ostensibly not targeted at any specific countries, top Bush administration officials, such as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, leave little doubt that North Korea is the country that Washington most wants to feel the initiative’s pinch. However, some U.S. officials, as well as diplomats of other governments, are quick to declare that the initiative is not a blockade of North Korea.

Pyongyang has reacted negatively to the initiative. North Korea’s state-run press described the exercises as “blatant military provocations” that could lead U.S.-North Korean relations to an “explosive phase.”

China, which hosted six-party talks in August to try and defuse tensions regarding North Korea’s bid to acquire nuclear weapons, also expressed criticism of the initiative, fearing it could further stress an already strained situation. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Kong Quan said Sept. 4, “Quite some countries have doubts over the legality and effectiveness of the [initiative]. Under such circumstances, one should act in a prudent manner.” He recommended that dialogue is the best way to prevent proliferation.

Concerns about the initiative also appear to extend to some capitals with close ties to Washington. Neither Canada nor South Korea has publicly joined the effort, though U.S. officials say the initiative is to be expanded as broadly as possible. China, Russia, and South Korea have all reportedly been consulted about the initiative.

The initiative is still in its formative stages. President George W. Bush announced the initiative May 31 and the participants held just their third formal meeting Sept. 3-4 in Paris, where they agreed upon a set of nonbinding principles framing the new interdiction strategy.

Participants pledged not to ship weapons of mass destruction or related delivery vehicles and technologies themselves and to “seriously consider” cooperating in letting their vessels or those flying their flags be stopped and searched if suspected of carrying such cargo. They also vowed to inspect vessels and airplanes reasonably suspected of transporting dangerous goods entering their territorial seas or airspace.

The initiative does not license its participants to conduct search and seizures unconditionally. A vessel in international waters, generally 24 kilometers and further from a coastline, is typically off-limits unless it is unmarked or the country whose flag the ship is flying gives permission for it to be boarded.

The initiative does not authorize or empower its adherents to do anything that they could not do before. It is more a spur to action to take greater advantage of existing national and international law to try and stop proliferation.

U.S. and foreign officials view sparse and tardy intelligence—not a lack of authority or forces—as the biggest hurdle to implementing the initiative. To remedy this shortcoming, the 11 countries committed to improve their procedures for sharing information on illicit or undesirable trade in a timely fashion to enable effective action.