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India and the Container Security Initiative

Cdr Gurpreet S. Khurana was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • July 17, 2007

    While the amorphous threat of terrorism can be extrapolated on the basis of what happened on 9/11, this constitutes only the 'visible horizon' of the extent of the terrorists' innovation. They are likely to be on the lookout for new means to cause mass effect, which may even include transfer of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to their intended target. As a predominant part of the vulnerable global trading system, sea-ports and commercial shipping are widely acknowledged to be highly suitable as vectors for delivering WMD. Although the security of airlines has been beefed up worldwide in the aftermath of 9/11, maritime transportation remains a 'weak link' due to the ease of concealment within a ship and the assured freedom of navigation at sea. The growing containerisation of trade has compounded the problem of such illicit transfers.

    Launched by the United States in January 2002, the Container Security Initiative (CSI) envisaged screening of all containers at foreign ports by US Customs officials in concert with their host-nation counterparts, before being shipped to US ports - the rationale being "to extend our zone of security outward so that American borders are the last line of defence, not the first." The process involves intelligence-exchange, use of automated 'non-intrusive' screening of containers and use of 'smart' tamper-proof containers.

    Initially, the CSI was a conundrum for many countries that had the USA as a major export destination. India was one such country. On the one hand, there were security and sovereignty concerns attendant to the stationing of US officials in their ports (notwithstanding the fact that CSI is a reciprocal arrangement). Besides, compliance with CSI-standards entailed enormous financial investment for advanced technology and port-operations, besides time delays due to container checks. On the other hand, if their ports were not CSI-compliant, their exports would have to be re-routed through trans-shipment ports that were CSI-compliant, which would have led to delays and possibly even disruptions due to congestion in these few ports. This would have resulted in increased costs and ensuing losses, including in terms of competitiveness.

    Eventually many countries realised that participation in the CSI would be advantageous in commercial terms due to the increased 'attractiveness' of their ports that enjoyed reduced risk and greater insurance value, particularly with respect to a possible terrorist attack on maritime trade. Furthermore, it was realised that the CSI was unlikely to adversely affect the efficiency of cargo movement: since containers usually await loading at the port of origin, this time period could be utilized for inspecting them rather than on their arrival at US ports.

    India has been contemplating joining the CSI since 2003, and many rounds of Indo-US discussions have been held in this regard. However, the primary impediment so far has been the concerns expressed by intelligence and customs agencies about stationing US officials in Indian ports, including their possible intrusion into local port jurisdiction, enforcement and strategic imports. Indian decision-making process has been rather slow, particularly considering that even China lost no time in discerning the dividends of the initiative and made its major ports CSI-compliant. However, recent news reports indicate that India is poised to 'come aboard' the CSI. After 59 other ports in 27 countries worldwide that have become 'CSI-compliant', India's Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) at Mumbai may soon become the sixtieth. The Indian government is likely to take a decision in this regard in the week beginning July 16, 2007. Apprehensions expressed by Indian intelligence and customs agencies are being addressed through a clear codification of rules-of-conduct and 'red-lines' within the agreement.

    Like in the case of most other countries, India's participation in the CSI also seems to be largely driven by economic imperatives. The competition amongst commerce-savvy states is palpable, and with CSI acquiring a self-sustaining inertia, India has no choice but to harmonize its commercial activity with global trends. At the same time, it cannot be ignored that automated container screening and information exchange associated with the CSI have lately become security imperatives for India. This exigency has become particularly pronounced after events indicated India's poor record in maritime-transportation security. In October 2004, ten workers at a private foundry near Delhi were killed in a blast caused by live shells in metal scrap that was imported from erstwhile war zones of West Asia in shipping containers. In May 2005, Mumbai police discovered a large quantity of small arms in a container that had arrived from Singapore. Even if these cases are not linked to terrorism, they amply expose India's vulnerabilities. Given that India's container trade is rapidly increasing, investments to provide enhanced security become necessary. India is also better placed among developing countries to afford such investments. As early as in June 2002, the World Customs Organisation (WCO) had endorsed the CSI and passed a resolution to enable countries develop container security programmes in line with the initiative.

    Once India joins the CSI, it must look beyond it. The initiative is currently a bilateral 'hub-and-spokes' mechanism envisaged only to cater for the security of the United States. It, however, has the potential to be expanded into a 'global web', beginning with countries like India that are particularly affected by terrorism.