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US Asks for Asian Cooperation on Increased Container Screenings

Visiting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has urged Japan to screen maritime freight for lethal materials to prevent so-called dirty bombs and other terror attacks on the United States. The top security official's two-day visit to Tokyo is part of an Asian tour that includes China and Singapore and is meant to win support for new anti-terrorism efforts.

Top U.S. security official Michael Chertoff says he wants major trading partners such as China and Japan to install sophisticated equipment at ports to screen U.S.-bound freight for radiation, biological hazards and other dangers.

Chertoff on Monday met with senior Japanese officials, including the foreign and transport ministers.

Chertoff told reporters Tuesday that he will give the Chinese the same message he delivered in Japan - increased screenings are not intended to solely boost U.S. security.

"It's very much in China's interest, as well as in ours, to make sure that chain of supply remains secure," he said. " I think we all know that if a container were ever used to bring a dirty (radioactive) bomb or something similar to that into the United States it would, in addition to the obviously catastrophic consequences in America, be absolutely devastating to marine shipping. It will be a mortal blow because there'd be a real counter-reaction."

In Asia, the port of Hong Kong is operating a trial radiation-screening program. But companies elsewhere have expressed concern that the extra screenings will slow shipments.

Secretary Chertoff says the opposite would be true - because ports that join the initiative would be viewed as safer, meaning their cargo would get handling priority and reach destinations quicker.

As Chertoff is traveling through Asia, criticism is continuing in America about possible security risks to U.S. ports. Critics say the Bush administration has been too willing to approve selling parts of America's cargo infrastructure to foreign companies.

A company owned by the rulers of a Gulf Arab state recently agreed not to buy container terminals at five U.S. ports after a domestic political firestorm against the proposed deal. The U.S. government also plans to award a contract to Hutchinson Whampoa, a Hong Kong conglomerate, to help detect radioactive material in cargo headed from the Bahamas to the United States.

Chertoff on Tuesday said the emotional reaction to U.S. port security is based on misperceptions and sends the wrong message.

"This is not the United States against the rest of the world. This is the United States and the civilized world against terrorists," he stressed. " And we have to be clear that we want to have good relations with other countries and we want to isolate the terrorists. We don't want to isolate ourselves."

After leaving Japan Chertoff will visit Singapore before heading to Hong Kong and Beijing. There he will also urge the government to increase cooperation on repatriating illegal Chinese immigrants in the U.S. and to crack down on criminal organizations responsible for smuggling them across the Pacific.