Hong Kong has agreed to let U.S. customs officers inspect cargo in the city's port as part of Washington's effort to keep terrorists from smuggling weapons into the United States.
The Container Security Initiative marks a new era in American customs practices. Under the program, U.S. customs officials will be stationed at ports in participating countries to inspect U.S.-bound cargo. The system aims to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks on America.
U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner signed the agreement with Hong Kong officials on Monday.
"Under the terms of Declaration of Principles that we are signing, today a small number of customs personnel will be assigned here in the very near future," said Mr. Bonner. "They will use and bring to bear the powerful automated targeting systems of the United States customs service."
Since the attacks on the United States last year, concerns have grown that terrorist could smuggle weapons or explosives into the country through its sea and river ports.
Much of the cargo arriving by sea is loaded onto trucks or trains, which often pass through cities, and officials fear that well-timed terrorist attacks could devastate densely populated areas. Mr. Bonner mentioned a suspected terrorist discovered in a container bound for Canada in October 2001 as an example of one security breach.
Hong Kong, on the coast of southern China, is one of the world's busiest container ports. It handles much of the trade between China and the United States, including nearly 10 percent of all shipping containers that enter the United States.
Last year, we handled 17.8 million containers, with 2.2 million containers exported to the States," said Raymond Wong, Hong Kong's commissioner for Customs and Excise. "Our economy depends much on the smooth and efficient flow of cargo through our port."
He says the agreement reflects Hong Kong's commitment to the war on terrorism. Hong Kong sells itself as one of the world's most efficient and reliable logistics hubs. Earlier this year, Hong Kong officials expressed concerns that the U.S. security program would create delays that could cripple the local shipping industry. Shippers also questioned the feasibility of the program, given that many containers transit through Hong Kong waters without touching land.
Mr. Bonner acknowledges the details must be worked out before the program is implemented in Hong Kong.
On Friday, Singapore became the first Asian country to sign a port security agreement with the United States. Other countries that have signed security deals are Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany.