Malaysia's Carelessness over WMD

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.

Najib has also acknowledged that outside of the PSI Malaysia has “some cooperation with ASEAN countries to share information and intercept ships carrying suspicious cargo.”

Malaysia's objections to formally endorsing the PSI revolve around concerns of maintaining a nonaligned foreign policy and respecting other states' sovereignty. But neither of these should be a serious obstacle to joining the PSI. Enforcing UN protocol and trying to stop WMD proliferation hardly violates either principle. In fact, by not making greater strides to crack down on front entities and smuggling through its ports, Kuala Lumpur would arguably be taking the side of suspected proliferators.

Furthermore, due to international law, the PSI respects national sovereignty by forbidding interdictions on the high seas without consent from the government of the vessel's home country. Even historically neutral states like Switzerland and Sweden, as well as numerous members of the Nonaligned Movement, have embraced the PSI.

Still, the PSI is no silver bullet for halting the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. It is true that more than 50 interdictions have been carried out under the auspices of the PSI, preventing the transfer of heavy water to Iran and North Korean exports of ballistic missile technology. But compliance is far from universal. And aside from ship boarding agreements, the PSI has no enforcement mechanism on the high seas. It's also limited by the strength of national cargo inspections and cannot technically require its participants to take action since it is an informal rather than legally binding agreement. There are signs pointing in the opposite direction, however, as countries continue to sign on and the Obama administration promised in its National Security Strategy to transform the PSI into a “durable international effort.”

The PSI is far from perfect, but it is a worthy endeavor. By remaining outside of its code of principles, intelligence sharing, ship boarding agreements, and implicit technical assistance provisions, Malaysia is casting aside an opportunity to secure its ports and prevent the proliferation of destructive weapons. It's time for the Najib administration to engage with international partners to prevent WMD trafficking, dismantle front networks, and enhance Kuala Lumpur's nonproliferation credibility.

Endorsement of the PSI could entail such benefits as the ability to inspect suspicious vessels flying the flags of partner countries, foreign aid in constructing and implementing effective inspection and export control regimes, and technical assistance with radiation detection and other vital security procedures. There's simply no rhyme or reason why the Malaysian government shouldn't be interested in these things.

Stephen Herzog is a visiting research associate at the Washington, DC-based Federation of American Scientists, where he focuses on nonproliferation issues. He is also associate editor of Bellum: A Project of the Stanford Review. The views here are his own.