Holding the Government Accountable

The Proliferation Security Initiative: Naval Interception Bush Style

by Colin Robinson

On May 31, 2003 as part of a speech in Krakow, Poland, President George W. Bush announced a new effort to hinder the unwanted spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Calling nuclear, chemical and biological weapons the 'greatest threat to peace,' Bush said that the United States and a number of its allies had begun to work upon new agreements to search and seize planes and ships carrying such weapons or weapons technologies, entitled the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). The initiative was widely seen as aimed at halting North Korean proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Effectively what the PSI does is further extend — in characteristically Bush administration fashion — the now relatively common practice of naval interception operations aimed at blocking activities the international community deems illegal. Ship interception operations in 'peacetime' have become frequent since Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. However, the 'searching' of aircraft is a much more difficult business, as the only guaranteed means of stopping an aircraft in flight is to shoot it down. Numerous international incidents have been precipitated by such acts, including the downing of private rescue aircraft by Cuban fighters in 1996, the destruction of a missionary aircraft in Peru in April 2001, and the Cold War Soviet shoot down of the South Korean commercial flight KAL 007 in 1983. Given the fraught situation with stopping and searching aircraft, it is most likely that PSI operations will be limited to naval activity for some time to come. Specifically in the case of North Korea, the country is almost surrounded by South Korean, Japanese, Russian, and Chinese airspace, and each of those four countries has an operation fighter interception capability. What is required here to stop or greatly impair North Korean aerial transport of WMD is agreement by China (principally) and other countries to close their airspace to such flights, rather than a multilateral initiative.

Since the passage of a UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) in 1966 imposing selective economic sanctions on Rhodesia, and the subsequent British maritime blockade which it authorized — the ‘Beira Patrol’ — naval interception of suspect ships has been one of the methods available to the community of nations to resolve crisis. However, the practice only took off after the Cold War had ended, with the imposition of UNSCR 661 in August 1990, imposing an oil blockade on Iraq and Kuwait in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion. Faced with the complex internal disputes in the former Yugoslavia, a weapons embargo was implemented by a September 1991 UN resolution and enforced at sea by NATO and European countries. A sea-borne weapons blockade was at that time one method whereby interested states could be seen to be taking action on the conflict without too much danger to their personnel.

Naval interdiction operations in general and the PSI in particular face a number of challenges to effective implementation. These include legal authorization, the political problems involved in constructing and maintaining a 'coalition of the willing,' logistical constraints, as well as rules of engagement difficulties. While international law can always become a subject of debate, most states believe at the moment that only a UN resolution can authorize interception and search on the high seas, outside nations' territorial waters, which would otherwise be piracy. Given the wide dismay with many recent U.S. international initiatives, which have been viewed as unilateral and perhaps unwise, the PSI is unlikely to gain such legal backing in the foreseeable future.

Interlinked with the difficulty of legal authority is the political mustering of a coalition to mount such operations. Following President Bush's speech on May 31, a first meeting of states interest in the proposal was convened in Madrid on June 15. The countries involved were Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Britain and the United States. No Middle Eastern countries took part, and neither did South Korea, which was concerned about the United States’ hard line on the issue.[1] Later speculation that Australia might be willing to send ships to join the United States in interdiction operations was replaced after a later meeting in Brisbane on July 9-10, 2003 by statements from Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer that it was more likely that short-term efforts would be confined to PSI member states' territorial waters.[2] After the same meeting, it emerged that Japan was concerned about the level of focus on North Korea, rather than an approach addressing all trade, involving countries like Iran, Syria, and Cuba. Both Japan and South Korea are worried that precipitous moves on such a policy may trigger North Korea into starting a conflict.

While at the political level assembling countries interested enough in the PSI may be difficult, the United States did achieve some progress at the Brisbane meeting. It was agreed that joint civil-military interdiction training exercises would be mounted 'as soon as practicable.' Paul O'Sullivan, Deputy Secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, said after the meeting that it was likely that exercises would take place globally, and he named the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean Sea as potential locations while appearing to rule out the South China Sea.[3] Australia seems likely to allow its naval vessels to join the United States at least for such exercises, but no other willing countries have been named yet. Operationally all the navies of the 11 states involved have been involved at various time with embargo operations including the United States directed against either Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, or al Qaeda. There is a reasonable level of experience of such activities, and all of the states involved are well-used to working in a NATO or NATO-aligned coalition structure.

PSI naval operations will be easiest logistically if the most nations possible participate. However, in the current early stage of the initiative's development it seems only the United States and Australia will be willing to participate, and it seems unlikely given Japanese and South Korean scepticism that any interception operations under the banner of the PSI will be mounted nearby North Korea in East Asia at least for some time to come. The first PSI exercise will be conducted by Australia, the United States, and possibly Japan in the Coral Sea northwest of Australia in September, run concurrently with the long-planned military exercise 'Crocodile 2003.[4] However, Japan will only participate if the drill can be characterized as a 'police exercise,' due to its constitutional restraints on the use of military force.

The complicated rules of engagement (ROE) question is one that has bedevilled previous naval interception operations. ROE are the set of conditions under which a naval vessel may intercept, challenge, warn, board, or seize suspect ships, and have caused embarrassing incidents in the past, in the case of the Joanna V incident during the British Rhodesian blockade and incidents early during the blockade of Iraq in 1990.[5]

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf relates in his autobiography the difficulties involved in clarifying what action was to be taken against Iraqi vessels, with commanders on the scene being castigated first for not taking enough action, and then having new orders countermanded so that nothing more than warning shots were fired.[6] However, since that time the United States and its allies have undergone 13 years where virtually continuous maritime interception and interdiction operations have been underway, and procedures are now well understood and practiced. However, any PSI naval interdiction operation will have its rules of engagement closely scrutinized, and potentially subject to mid-mission changes, given the delicacy of the projected tasks and the number of nations likely to be involved in the effort.

In summary, the Proliferation Security Initiative is of great interest to the Bush administration but has not found enough support to allow the major changes in international law that would be necessary to legitimize itself in the eyes of most states. This is unlikely to change within the next few months. At present, its overwhelming focus on North Korea has unsettled South Korea and Japan enough that it is very unlikely that any activities under the banner of the PSI will commence in East Asia for some time to come. Interdiction activities may however be practised in East Asia as part of the routine, continuing web of U.S. and allied naval exercises without being termed as part of the PSI initiative. Operations within the PSI framework over the next few months are likely to be limited to naval practice exercises with core U.S. allies such as Australia and the United Kingdom, potentially as well as intensified police and intelligence co-operative activities to identify and hinder proliferation efforts. Further action will first require a major change in international attitudes to allow boarding foreign ships in international waters, hitherto seen as unlawful.

[1] John Kerin, 'Fear US will push North Korea,' News.com.au, 10 July 2003

[2] ibid.

[3] Brisbane Proliferation Security Initiative meeting Chairman's Statement and media conference transcripts, available at http://2001-2009.state.gov/t/isn/rls/other/25377.htm

[4] Steven R. Weisman, "U.S. to send signal to North Koreans in naval exercise," New York Times, Aug. 18, 2003

[5] Richard Mobley, The Beira Patrol: Britain's Broken Blockade Against Rhodesia, Naval War College Review, Winter 2002

[6] Norman Schwarzkopf, It Doesn't Take a Hero, Bantam Books, October 1993, pp. 373-4.