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What's aboard those shipping containers?
A nightmare scenario to haunt your dreams: Considering the behavior of the People's Republic of China -- menacing Taiwan, abrogating its obligations to Hong Kong, and showing off its naval might near Japan -- reasonable observers may well find themselves gaming out the possibilities of an escalatory environment. It's not a rosy picture.
■ In particular, this threat ticks all the boxes for "plausible and sufficiently nefarious": Weapons systems mounted within shipping containers, using the containers as camouflage.
■ Global trade depends upon the humble shipping container, an innovation we don't usually give its due; its ubiquity has made it possible for the entire global economy to move predictably and efficiently (except when a ship gets stuck in the Suez Canal). But at the same time, familiarity has a way of dulling vigilance.
■ Shipping containers have been widely used to facilitate smuggling, including for human trafficking. And without a firm (and expensive) commitment to thorough inspections of shipments from end-to-end of a shipping journey, both our land and sea borders are potentially much more porous than we might think.
■ If you thought it looked bad to get through the lines for customs and immigration in March 2020, imagine the backlogs that might ensue from trying to visually inspect every one of the ten thousand shipping containers on a single large vessel, both at the port of departure and the destination (and, of course, tracking the container to ensure it wasn't opened at an undeclared stop along the way).
■ But what is the risk if we don't increase our attention to what's making its way here aboard those nondescript boxes? The prospect that someone might be smuggling missiles into Long Beach is frightening enough, but this is the 21st Century: The biggest threats aren't always kinetic. It really isn't that hard to imagine a scenario in which containers could be weaponized not with missiles, but with weapons capable of delivering an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) that could disable electrical grids or cripple computer networks.
■ Balances must be struck in our world. Low-friction connectedness generally pays tremendous dividends in terms of world progress and improving standards of living. The freest possible movement of goods, money, ideas, and people generally enhances the prospects for all of us. But there is good reason to look at the need for inspection, tracking, and verification as a necessary limitation on that freedom. The weather is natural and mostly unchangeable -- but that doesn't stop us from using radar to be vigilant about what it's doing and to deliver advance warning of what might go wrong.
■ The Trojan Horse is a durable metaphor for very good reason. Unless and until the Communist Party that rules China demonstrates far better faith than they've been wont to show for the last decade, the American public ought to demand transparency and heightened scrutiny about what's aboard.