WASHINGTON – Maybe the State Department fell victim to a Gobi Desert mirage when it signed a very important maritime agreement — with landlocked Mongolia.
The Department with great fanfare on Tuesday signed a deal that will allow Mongolian ships to be boarded and searched if they are suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction.
Yet Mongolia, a vast land that is home to the Gobi Desert, windswept steppes and largely populated by nomadic yak herders, has no navy at all and lies thousands of miles from open waters.
Still, its tiny merchant marine is recognized as one of 32 "flag of convenience" countries by international maritime authorities.
The U.S.-Mongolia shipboarding pact, the eighth signed between the United States and usually coastal or island nations, is designed to cover those Mongolian-flagged ships in international waters that might be used by other countries, notably North Korea, to disguise cargos of illegal weaponry, U.S. officials said.
Asked what Washington hoped to achieve with the agreement, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said "I'll have to check," but stressed it was a key part of the "Proliferation Security Initiative" that aims to halt trade in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
Although Mongolia has only 62 ships registered under the "flag" program, according to the latest edition of the CIA World Factbook, officials said it is important to sign up as many countries as possible no matter how modest their fleet.
The seven countries that have signed agreements before Tuesday account for nearly 10,000 registered ships and include the top three "flag of convenience" nations — Panama, Liberia and Malta — as well as Cyprus and the Marshall Islands, which are both in the top 10, according to the State Department.