US exports nuclear attack fears

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 June, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 June, 2002, 12:00am

SHIPPING LABOURERS toiling with containers in Hong Kong may seem far removed from the Hollywood glamour of screen idol Ben Affleck. Yet, in the fear-driven post-September 11 world they do share a connection.

Affleck's latest thriller hit United States movie screens last weekend, and quickly prompted a publicity push from the US Customs Service to defend the security of the nation's ports.

Affleck plays a CIA agent trying to stop all-out nuclear war in Sum of All Fears. In planning before the September attacks, the film manages to play on the biggest public fear of the moment - the imported container bomb.

The plot has the port of Baltimore vaporised by neo-Nazis using a nuclear device hidden in a vending machine imported on to the city docks. Hollywood tends to work its way into reality, and within hours of the film's release Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner was battling to ease domestic fears.

'It couldn't happen the way it happened [in the film],' Mr Bonner said as he displayed an array of detection equipment used by his officers.

'But no system is ever 100 per cent perfect . . . What we are trying to do is to have a security system that makes that sort of thing as impossible as we can.'

US intelligence chiefs do not know how far Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda operation has advanced in its efforts to build a nuclear device, but Washington is under pressure to show no effort is being spared in preparing for the unthinkable.

The Customs efforts - now under an unprecedented spotlight - include a proposal to effectively extend US borders to the world's megaports - including the biggest of them of all, Hong Kong.

About 18 million container units passed through the SAR's ports last year, a large proportion of them bound for the US, Hong Kong's second-largest trading partner behind the mainland.

Shanghai, Yantian, Kaohsiung and Singapore are also among the top 20 ports, handling an estimated 70 per cent of total US imports.

In January, Mr Bonner sent ripples across the diplomatic and trading communities when he first raised the idea of his 'container security initiative'.

He proposed sweeping intelligence and document sharing in which permanent teams of US Customs officers would pre-screen container imports from bases in foreign ports.

The speech raised far more questions than it answered given the sweeping legal and sovereignty problems involved, but the plan now has considerable backing in Washington.

A US team is due in Hong Kong within days to hammer out specifics.

Mr Bonner told the South China Morning Post yesterday he had been pleased by the reception received during preliminary discussions with regional governments, but the time had come for action.

'There has been a pretty good response out there . . . There is an understanding at a high political level that this is something that makes sense and it is important to get this up and implemented as soon as possible,' he said. 'I am not talking about next year but in the next couple of months.'

The effort is based on the fact that only a tiny fraction of containers can be inspected, with the figure being about two per cent in US ports.

Mr Bonner is pledging to 'screen' 100 per cent of suspicious cargo through his proposed 'risk targeting' network, so all containers that need to be checked are searched.

A formal agreement is in place with Canada, with Customs officers routinely sharing container databases at key ports such as Montreal and Newark.

'Our idea is to stand side by side and shoulder to shoulder to intercept high-risk containers, and the respective government would do this rapid container screening, with US Customs officers assisting as appropriate,' Mr Bonner said.

Regional government sources are not so sure. If Mr Bonner's proposals are workable and sensible, they believe, formal agreements could be relatively straightforward.

But if they are costly, awkward or create delays, there could be considerable resistance. Then there is fear that the exercise could really be window dressing - making things no safer, but easing the pressure in Washington. The media frenzy over the film is only confirming those fears in some circles.

A Hong Kong official said: 'Of course, we would be looking to co-operate where we can. But we are going to have to hear a lot more details. It needs to be a workable, realistic plan.

'We cannot find ourselves in a situation where we are just concentrating on US priorities. We have a lot of our own important work to do in running a safe, secure and efficient port.'

A South Korean official was more blunt. He said: 'Ports are a highly competitive and core industry . . . there is no room for wrong-headed meddling. They are East Asia's lifeline. Their smooth operation is everything. There is a long way to go on these ideas.'

Mr Bonner seems to sense the difficult sales job ahead, warning it would be in the region's interests to co-operate.

Firstly, he said, there could be a competitive and diplomatic advantage. US importers would want to use safe ports and the White House has made clear it expects co-operation in the war on terrorism.

Then there is the potential for trouble in case of a new crisis.

Mr Bonner said: 'In our view, we are talking about the future security of the global trading system. Just imagine if there was a problem with a container. That system could shut down overnight in panic. So surely it is in everyone's interests to co-operate.

'We know that sea-bound container traffic is what keeps much of Asia going, accounting for virtually all of its imports.'

Hong Kong could be forgiven for going into talks a little frustrated. Its port controls are widely known to be already more extensive than many of its rivals, including Singapore.

Under scrutiny from a US Congress worried about China's weapons programmes, Hong Kong's system of legislation and licences promotes an extensive paper trail that has been praised repeatedly in Washington.

Some congressional officers acknowledge it is a better run port than any in the US. Its efforts are backed by laws that put the responsibility for licensing sensitive goods on carriers, blocking a loophole exploited elsewhere.

A liaison system is in place under the World Customs Organisation, of which Hong Kong and the US are members, and the two share a long history of Customs co-operation.

Even if Hong Kong joins the new plan, there is still the question of a deal with Beijing over its fast-rising ports.

US Customs sources acknowledge talks with China are in their infancy. If sovereignty questions loom large in Hong Kong or Singapore, they will positively howl in Beijing.

'We have still got a long way to go,' one US official admitted. 'But we will get there somehow. It is going to be difficult to say no to this one.'

Greg Torode is the Post's Washington correspondent