|Written by Stephen Herzog|
|Wednesday, 06 April 2011|
Najib government needs a greater nonproliferation focus
On March 17, the Malaysian government reported that authorities at Port Klang had confiscated cargo suspected of being related to weapons of mass destruction which was headed from China to Iran aboard a Malaysia-flagged vessel.
Unfortunately, this story is but the latest account in a chilling narrative in which the Southeast Asian nation has been used as a transit point for illicit weapon trafficking. It is accordingly time for Kuala Lumpur to reassess and redefine its nonproliferation strategy. One key step in this direction would be for the administration of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to formally endorse the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative.
The latest cargo interception involved dismantled Chinese components suspected to be for use in the Iranian nuclear program. The Sun newspaper noted that police and customs officials had seized two containers of “equipment believed used to make weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear warhead.”
Ismail Omar, the Inspector General of national police, confirmed the suspicious cargo and said that the country's nuclear agency would be conducting an investigation. Meanwhile, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein acknowledged, “It is safe for me to say that Malaysia is likely being used as a transit point and not a destination point for WMD.”
The results of the government investigation could have serious implications for both Malaysia and the diplomacy over Iran's nuclear program. Iranian negotiations with the P5+1 parties have gained little traction in recent months, and the country is under several rounds of UN Security Council sanctions targeting its military and economy.
It is also important to focus on the point that reports suggest shipment of nuclear weapon components alongside sensitive dual-use technologies for use in uranium enrichment. In the past, Tehran was accused of experimenting with uranium deuteride neutron initiators for use in the physics package of a nuclear bomb, but no “smoking gun” ever surfaced. Short of such obvious technologies, Chinese firms may have shipped materials like carbon fiber and industrial vacuum tubes on the Malaysian vessel.
This is far from Kuala Lumpur's first experience with the WMD trade. Malaysia has come under constant criticism from western countries for its loose military export controls. In October 2003, the Italian coast guard interdicted a German-flagged ship carrying centrifuge components to Libya. It turned out that the Malaysian firm Scomi Precision Engineering, connected to then-Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's son, Kamaluddin Abdullah, had manufactured the parts for a front company connected to the AQ Khan nuclear smuggling network.
And in February 2010, the US State Department launched an investigation of Electronics Components Ltd and Skylife Worldwide. The probe concluded that these Malaysian firms were front companies that violated UN sanctions by attempting to provide technologies such as gyroscopes for missile guidance to Iran.
But in April 2010, the Najib government took steps to enhance its nonproliferation bona fides with its new Strategic Trade Act. Kuala Lumpur announced the approval of the bill the day before the Obama administration's Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. In praising the merits of the law, the premier said, “Malaysia is committed towards ensuring that nuclear materials and technologies do not fall into the wrong hands.”
The Strategic Trade Act is largely an attempt to codify Malaysian obligations under Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires states to take steps to prevent the proliferation of WMD and their associated components. The act put into place stricter procedures for licensing and regulating sensitive dual-use trade and the monitoring of ports. It also established harsh punishments for infractions.
Nevertheless, regulation efforts have hardly been sufficient. Because of its rapidly expanding economy and location between East Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Oceania, and the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia has long been an important waypoint and transshipment center. Port Klang and Tanjung Pelepas are among the world's busiest seaports. Together they handle nearly 15 million freight containers annually. But national export controls are roughly a year old, cargo inspections have been spotty at best, and the Najib government has not requested foreign assistance to implement Resolution 1540.
One way to improve Malaysia's nonproliferation strategy and credibility would be for Kuala Lumpur to embrace the Proliferation Security Initiative. The PSI was unveiled by then-US President George W. Bush in Poland in May 2003. It is an international effort to interdict weapon smuggling activities in contravention of the nonproliferation regime and involves practices such as intelligence sharing, technical assistance to enhance detection, and ship boarding agreements.
Thus far, 97 countries have endorsed the PSI, including important parties in the battle against proliferation like Georgia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates.
Despite Malaysia's status as a critical transshipping center and hotbed for WMD trafficking, the government has distanced itself from the PSI. Kuala Lumpur has actually joined countries such as Brazil, China, Indonesia, and South Africa in rejecting the initiative. However, Malaysia has observed interdiction exercises in the past and does not seem opposed to the principles underlying the PSI. Port Klang and Tanjung Pelepas are already participants in the US Customs and Border Protection Container Security Initiative, which involves the stationing of US customs authorities in Malaysia. Read more.