In a controversial and possibly illegal step, Australia plans to intercept and board ships on the high seas if it believes them to be a terrorist threat.
The Prime Minister, John Howard, yesterday announced the creation of a 1,000-nautical mile security ring around the coastline, extending south of New Zealand and north of Indonesia, far beyond Australian territorial waters.
All vessels that pass through the zone en route to Australia will be monitored, and required to give details of their crew, location, speed, cargo and destination port. Defence and customs officials will be given powers to intercept those suspected of being a threat.
Australia has heightened national security amid fears of a terrorist attack by Islamic militants based in south-east Asia, particularly Indonesia. However, most analysts believe that the risk, particularly from shipping, is minimal.
Legal experts suggested yesterday that intercepting ships in international waters would contravene maritime law and provoke an outcry.
Don Rothwell, a professor of international law at Sydney University, said Australia was entitled to monitor ships beyond the 200-nautical mile limit of its territorial waters.
But he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "With the exception of pirate ships and ships that are not flying flags, and one or two very minor exceptions, there is no real basis upon which any country can just stop any ship at all on the highs seas because it does infringe this fundamental freedom of high seas navigational freedom.
"If they are proposing to enforce this zone within the maritime zones of our adjacent neighbouring states, that would really be seen as quite a hostile act."
Australia supports the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which aims to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction by intercepting ships and planes.
Within the maritime zone, thousands of ships approaching Australia from some of the world's busiest sea routes could be monitored. Professor Rothwell said many countries would regard a request for information from ships as interfering with freedom of navigation.
Mr Howard has already angered Australia's neighbours by reiterating his view that pre-emptive strikes in the region are a legitimate response to terrorist threats. Many countries in south-east Asia resent Australia's assumption of the role of "deputy sheriff" to the United States in enforcing security in its region.
The latest move was announced amid reports that an oil tanker was ordered to stay out of Sydney Harbour last year because authorities feared that it could be attacked by terrorists during New Year's Eve celebrations.
According to The Australian newspaper, police had been watching a group of Muslim men believed to be planning to target two harbourside sites. The men were seen acting suspiciously on a small boat in the harbour, where hundreds of thousands of people had gathered to watch the annual fireworks display.
The Panamanian tanker, carrying 90,000 tons of crude oil, was ordered to anchor outside Sydney Heads and was not permitted to unload until the next day.
Mr Howard told Perth local radio that a new joint command would be set up, comprising the Australian Defence Force, the navy and customs. It would be given powers to board suspicious ships and inspect their cargo and crew.Reuse content