Container-terrorism – the smuggling into the United States of weapons, explosives and terrorists on board container ships – and US counter-measures – are leaving their mark on Washington’s trade relations. Tightened security at US ports rebounds on Europe and the Far East, where economies are built around mega ports, through which the bulk of the world’s container traffic passes.
US authorities, including counter-terrorism agencies and the Coast Guard, as well as Congress, totally agree that the US must set up its forward line of defense far from its borders, at the ports of origin of containers bound for American shores. US agents and security personnel are known to be quietly fighting “container-terrorism” in Canadian and Italian ports.
Real admiral Paul Pluta, US Coast guard assistant commandant for marine safety and environmental protection, put it neatly when he said in January, “We have to push out our maritime border to give us the information we need for maritime security.”
Congressman Don Young from Alaska added, “We must make sure that the sub-carriers from Liberia and elsewhere go through the same type of security as we do, or they don’t ship product to this country. Then you have a way of having secure ports”.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington report the Bush administration is setting up a “global container security system” that will include all US ports and the 10 largest ports in the world, mainly in Europe and the Far East, where uniform security procedures and screening equipment will be in place to track containers shipped to the United States. Any container coming from a port that is not certified as safe by the United States will not be allowed into its international waters or ports.
The United States currently takes in more than 11 TEU (Twenty Feet Equivalent Unit) per year, according to the following breakdown: six from northeast Asia, one from the southeast Asia, two from Europe and the Middle East, 1.2 from central and south America, about 500,000 from the Indian subcontinent and another 200,000 from Africa and Oceania. The freightage comes from hundreds of ports scattered across these regions.
International shipping experts consulted by DEBKA-Net-Weekly see monumental marine jams ahead if the10 mega port security program goes into effect. Since the 10 mega ports will handle enormous quantities of containers, all US-bound cargoes will have to be carried by super freighters. This will create an immediate problem: ports along the eastern seaboard of the United States cannot handle giant vessels. Shipping jams around the world and coming and going from US ports will cause a sharp spike in shipping rates and the prices of goods. Some products may be priced out of the American market with devastating effect on production in the exporting countries.
Moreover, dozens if not hundreds of small ports around the world, that now handle some of the container traffic to the United States, may stagnate or even shut down, for failing to meet the steep cost of stiffened security standards. Such shutdowns will have the effect of putting out of business international medium and small-size cargo vessels that will be unable to fill their holds, and displacing large coastal populations whose livelihoods depend on those small ports.
The American way of dealing with container security has aroused the indignation of some governments, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Europe and the Far East. The European Union in Brussels was quick to issue a rebuke, calling for European ports to be reorganized immediately in such a way as to dictate to Washington – rather than be dictated to – on security systems.
But not all European governments toe the line laid down in Brussels. Some have independently initiated stringent security measures in the hope of meeting American requirements. The Italian port of Livorno, for instance, has installed a new container-screening device at a cost of more than $3.5 million. Two such devices will go into use at the big port of Genoa.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Far East sources report that authorities in countries of northeast Asia and southeast Asia, where more than 60 percent of the world’s America-bound container traffic originates, are prepared to wait until what they regard as America’s security fever abates in time and the strict regulations and restrictions are eased. Asian governments have great faith in the bread and butter rules of profit and loss prevailing in the American perception of international trade. Above all, many Europeans and Asians quite frankly accuse the United States of exploiting the global terror threat and homeland security as media for taking control of the world shipping trade. If this is so, they warn, the Americans will have a tough fight on their hands.