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Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
Proliferation Security Initiative Advances
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But Russia and China Keep Their Distance

Wade Boese

A U.S.-led coalition to interdict shipments of deadly arms around the globe scored a couple of firsts in February. The 11 original participants added three more states to their roster, and the United States concluded an agreement giving it the right to board ships flying the flag of Liberia, which accounts for the second-largest number of vessels on the high seas. Yet, China and Russia have defied U.S. entreaties to join in the effort, dubbed the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).

President George W. Bush revealed the first expansion of the initiative in a Feb. 11 speech at the National Defense University, in which he outlined U.S. proposals to stop proliferation. “Three more governments—Canada and Singapore and Norway—will be participating in [PSI],” the president said. All three states, as well as Denmark and Turkey, attended a Washington-hosted PSI meeting in December. Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom have been involved since Bush’s launch of the initiative last May.

Bush said more states would be formally enlisted. Some 60 governments have endorsed the initiative’s principles, according to U.S. officials.

The three new participants will join in PSI activities to detect and interdict shipments of missiles and chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and related technologies at sea, in the air, and on land. Various governments have intercepted weapons shipments in the past, but PSI is aimed at better coordinating these national efforts.

Although PSI participants are in the middle of a series of ten public training exercises, they have been discreet about actual operations. However, after Libya renounced its weapons of mass destruction ambitions and programs last December, U.S. officials disclosed that PSI participants successfully had seized a shipment of centrifuge components destined for Libya just two months earlier. (See ACT, January/February 2004.)

While successful, the interdiction also underscored PSI’s limitations. Because the ship carrying the centrifuges was German-owned, Berlin was able to ask the shipping company to take its cargo to an Italian port to be voluntarily inspected.

If the ship had been registered to a non-PSI participant or an uncooperative government and did not pass through the waters of PSI participants, the opportunity to board the ship legally may not have arisen.

To board a ship in international waters, permission must be received from the government whose flag the ship is flying unless it violates some maritime rule, such as displaying improper registration or identification information.

Such constraints lent significance to the Feb. 11 signing of a boarding agreement with Liberia. The deal sets out the intentions of Liberia and the United States to allow their vessels suspected of transporting dangerous arms to be stopped and searched by the other’s military and law enforcement agencies.

Under the agreement, boarding permission will be sought on a case-by-case basis, but if a specific request is not responded to within a two-hour period, it will be treated as consent to act. Approximately 1,500 oceangoing ships are registered to Liberia—second only to Panama’s nearly 5,000.

A Department of State spokesman said Feb. 18 that the United States has approached up to 10 additional states, including Panama, about concluding similar boarding agreements.

Washington is also seeking to persuade Moscow and Beijing to become more actively engaged with PSI, but both capitals are hesitant. They have cited concerns about the legality and practicality of intercepting cargo in transit.

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton traveled to Russia at the end of January to sell the Kremlin on PSI but came away empty-handed. Russian officials reportedly are continuing to study the initiative.

China appears less receptive, if not more oblique. In a Feb. 12 press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue responded to a question about PSI by stating, “We believe that the issue of proliferation shall be resolved through political and diplomatic means within the framework of international laws, and all nonproliferation measures shall contribute to peace, security, and stability in the region and the world at large.”