May 7, 2008

HARRISONBURG—In an op-ed published in today’s Washington Times, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, raises concerns about Mongolia’s “flag of convenience,” the practice whereby the country basically rents out its flag to ship owners who, for whatever reason, either do not want to fly the flag of their own countries or otherwise want to try to evade close scrutiny.

After noting that maritime security is a task with which “ landlocked Mongolians had, understandably, not a whit of experience, historical or otherwise,” the article goes on to point out that, even more disturbingly, the Mongolian Ship Registry, established by the current President Nambaryn Enkhbayar when he was prime minister five years ago, is actually run by a company that formerly ran Cambodia’s “flag of convenience” operation before its franchise was revoked for having rented out that country’s banner to drug smugglers and, in one case, a North Korean freighter caught running Scud-type missiles and rocket fuel to Yemen. Furthermore, the owner of the registry management company is also the majority stockholder of another firm that acts as the shipping agent for North Korea.

Observing that the Mongolian banner is currently being flown by vessels owned and operated by Lebanese, Syrians, and Russians, Dr. Pham concludes:

Of particular concern for American lawmakers is the fact Mongolia received an average of $12.8 million in U.S. assistance annually for the last five years in addition to being the beneficiary of a $285 million grant from the American taxpayer-funded Millennium Challenge Corp.

Despite receiving millions of dollars from America’s public purse, Mongolia appears to have no problem renting out its flag to weapons proliferators, criminals and other shady figures who endanger the security of the United States and its allies.

In the middle of its struggle against terrorism, America needs to be assured that the ships sailing the world’s oceans — waters kept open largely by the efforts of the U.S. Navy — are safe, high-quality vessels meeting commonsense security requirements. We need to know who owns operates and crews the ships — especially if they approach our shores or those of our allies.

It should be noted there has been some progress. Last year Mongolia agreed to allow the United States and its partners in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to board and inspect vessels flying its flag if they have a “basis for the suspicion” that something is amiss. But this only marginally lessens the risk.

The truth is, in assessing Mongolia's value as an ally in the global war on terrorism, the country's modest troop contributions to Iraq and Afghanistan have to be weighed against the threat to our national interests posed by the bargain-basement "flag of convenience" it now hawks. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should have her regional representative investigate Mongolia's maritime activities and aims — and the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism should be asked to certify whether they represent a threat to Americans at home and abroad. In short, a country like Mongolia cannot be allowed to drift into these dangerous waters, least of all on America's dime.

To read the full text of the op-ed, “Ships of Fools?,” click here.