The terrorist attacks on the U.S. Navy’s guided-missile destroyer USS Cole in October 2002 and, later, the French tanker Linberg awakened the world to the asymmetric maritime threat posed by terrorist organizations not only to the United States itself but also to other free nations. Responding to the challenges posed by Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, maritime security forces of countries both large and small have been struggling ever since to find the appropriate mix of laws and regulations, physical security upgrades, operational tactics, and interoperability capabilities needed to cope with the formidable new dangers facing their naval and merchant fleets – their port and maritime infrastructures as well.

The continuing struggle for maritime security has been particularly important in the Far East – for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • More than 50 percent of all of the world’s merchant shipping is controlled from Asia.
  • More than 90 percent of the merchant ships entering or departing from U.S. ports are foreign-flag vessels.
  • South Korea is now the largest shipbuilding country in the world.
  • China’s maritime economy is the fastest growing in the world.
  • Singapore and Hong Kong are the two busiest ports in the world.

Considering these facts, and other relevant data that might be cited, it is not surprising that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) now maintains a significant presence in the Far East – primarily through two of its most important agencies, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) directorate. 


The Coast Guard presence in the Far East dates back to 1947, when Captain Frank Meals, USCG, helped General of the Army Douglas MacArthur form Japan’s new Maritime Safety Agency (which was modeled after the U.S. Coast Guard).  In 1952, the Coast Guard established its own Far East Section (FESEC) in Japan, at Yokota Air Base, to oversee the operation of its long-range radio aids to navigation (LORAN) systems positioned throughout the Western Pacific and East Asia. In December 1994, FESEC was decommissioned, and a new Coast Guard command – Activities Far East/Marine Inspection Office Asia (FEACT) – was commissioned. FEACT also became the parent command of the service’s Marine Inspection Detachment (MIDET) headquartered in Singapore. Operating under the direction of the Fourteenth Coast Guard District, headquartered in Hawaii, FEACT operates in and throughout a huge geographic area of responsibility encompassing 41 independent nations and tens of thousands of square miles of international waters.   

FEACT personnel are assigned numerous responsibilities, including the conduct of safety inspections aboard both U.S.-flag and foreign-flag commercial ships – always, of course, in accordance with U.S. law and various international agreements to which the United States is a signatory. Having an important Coast Guard presence in the Far East not only helps the service carry out its Marine Inspection responsibilities, it also provides an excellent opportunity for building friendly relations with foreign maritime agencies throughout the Far East. 

Improved Security and an Escalating Confidence 

The value of these always important relationships escalated significantly in 2004 when the Coast Guard launched an International Port Security Program to comply with new cargo and shipping requirements mandated by the U.S. Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 (MTSA) and the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code.   

The principal purpose of the new international program is to establish and maintain a dialogue between maritime nations on ways to improve port and maritime security, share best security practices and security concerns, and observe one another’s port security operations (to build confidence in the adequacy of the security measures implemented by America’s trading partners). As the first step in the program, the Coast Guard assigned International Port Security Liaison Officers to various offices in the United States and Europe, and to both FEACT and MIDET.   

Building upon the international relationships already created throughout the Far East by FEACT, the liaison officers assigned to that area have been able to develop even stronger ties with maritime officials and industry leaders throughout the Far East. This has resulted in an active sharing of security practices and concerns during visits by U.S. security personnel to Far East ports, and during reciprocal visits to U.S. ports by security personnel from Far East nations. Among the list of countries visited by the new Coast Guard liaison teams are China, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. Several Ounces of Preliminary Prevention CBP also is working closely with several countries in the Far East to implement the new U.S. Container Security Initiative (CSI), a DHS program initiated in 2002 that has already significantly improved the security of maritime shipping containers. The CSI program, which is designed to screen containers at designated international ports – again, always with the cooperation of  the host country – before the containers are loaded on U.S.-bound ships, assigns CBP agents to work side by side “in country” with the host nation’s security personnel. The key components of the CSI program, as posted on the CBP web site, are: 

(a) The use of intelligence and automated information to identify and target containers that pose a potential risk of terrorism; 

(b) The pre-screening of those containers at the port of departure – i.e., long before they arrive at U.S. ports; 

(c) The development, production, and use of advanced detection technology to pre-screen containers that pose a risk just as quickly as possible; and 

(d) The increased use of  “smarter” tamper-evident containers. 

A secure container transportation and delivery system is obviously a critical component of the “just in time” inventory-management system used by industries throughout the world. According to a 22 September 2004 report released by the Congressional Research Service, containers now “account for 90 percent of all world cargo” and approximately seven million “are offloaded in U.S. seaports annually.”   

The Hidden Trillion-Dollar Price Tag 

There is an even more important factor to be considered – namely, that the effects of a successful terrorist attack through the use of a weapon of mass destruction hidden within a container not only could be devastating to the U.S. economy but also could result in thousands of casualties. In fact, according to a 2002 Brookings Institution report – Protecting the American Homeland: A Preliminary Analysis – written by a team led by Dr. Michael E. O’Hanlon (senior fellow for Foreign Policy Studies), a successful attack could cost the United States as much as one trillion dollars, a total that dramatically illustrates the high stakes involved in the effort to improve the nation’s port and maritime security.   

The ports currently partnering with CBP on the CSI initiative within Asia and the Far East include not only Hong Kong and Singapore but also Yokohama, Tokyo, Nagoya, and Kobe, all in Japan; South Korea’s Pusan; Malaysia’s Port Klang and Tanjung; Thailand’s Laem Chabang; and China’s Shenzhen and Shanghai. CBP agents also can make formal requests to other host-nation personnel to carry out examinations of high-risk containers before they are loaded aboard U.S.-bound ships. All evidence suggests that the new security partnerships are working well. In fact, the combined international efforts of the CBP and U.S. Coast Guard seemed to be making a big and beneficial difference. But the threat posed by maritime terrorists keeps adapting – and growing – so the world’s security forces must continue to adjust, especially in the Far East where the stakes are so high.

Christopher Doane

Christopher Doane and Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III are retired Coast Guard officers and visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. Both of them have written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Joseph DiRenzo III

Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III is a retired Coast Guard officer. He's visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. He has written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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