If a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) was used, it would slow world trade to a crawl. Fortunately, pragmatic measures can be taken to enhance security for a modest outlay.
The ubiquitous cargo container deserves a lot of credit for converting free trade agreements into practice. Cargo containers have changed shipping from a labour-intensive activity to a modern, efficient one. The biggest beneficiary has been East Asia - although the distance to the US is huge, shipping a container costs $4,000 while the goods inside are typically worth $66,000. Containers are great, but multiple port closures would disrupt the global system, and relying on them makes us vulnerable.
A number of agencies have pursued initiatives. For instance, the US coast guard requires US-bound ships to notify them of their arrival 96 hours in advance. There are preloading inspections for US-bound ships in some countries and papers have to be filed electronically within 24 hours of sailing.
But the approach has been very piecemeal: there has been little coherence and there are vast discrepancies in funding. Some of the assumptions that programmes work on are questionable, with glaring weaknesses.
Everything is designed to target 'known risks', but WMDs do not fall into this category. Unlike other forms of crime, they are likely to be one-offs and current security systems are not designed for this; they do not target 'trusted shippers'. All the terrorists need to do is find a weak link in a trusted shipper - if this happened, no shipment would be low risk and worldwide transport would freeze.
But we can do better. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) needs to work with the EU and US to devise a multinational auditing organisation to encourage the adoption of standards. ASEAN and the EU should also endorse a pilot project currently taking place in Hong Kong where every container is scanned by a radiation camera, and then has its numbers optically read. This system even allows for the isolation of suspect containers that slip through.
Adoption of this would minimise disruption and should be put in place everywhere in the world. It would cost $50-$100 per container - very little really - and would allow us to move from a system of 'trust and don't verify' to 'trust and verify'.
Source: Port security is still a house of cards
Stephen E Flynn
Far Eastern Economic Review, Vol 169 No 1, Jan/Feb 2006
Review by Rhymer Rigby