Effectively selling the Port of Darwin to a Chinese-owned company is one of the most spectacular strategic idiocies of recent decades. When the Northern Territory government handed a 99-year lease over the port to Chinese owners in 2015, even the strategically inept Obama administration questioned the decision.
Because, let’s face it: there is no such thing as a privately-owned company in China. Despite the capitalist window-dressing, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” remains socialism: the heavy hand of the Chinese Communist Party lurks in the background. Just ask Jack Ma.
If that shouldn’t have been enough to warn even numpties like the NT government, Landbridge, the Chinese enterprise in question, has quietly made clear exactly where their loyalties lie.
The Chinese company operating the Port of Darwin says it will “actively respond to the call of the state”, as it works toward “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.
This gives the direct lie to the protestations by the company, and the defenders of the lease decision, that it is not under the thumb of the CCP.
The company, in a little-watched corporate video posted in late 2019, says it follows Chinese government directives, and is actively working to implement Xi Jinping’s blueprint for a globally dominant China.
“Landbridge Group follows the One Belt and One Road to the world, so that the world can feel the speed and strength of Chinese national enterprises,” it says on the video, accessed via the company’s Hong Kong website. “In the future, Landbridge will continue to actively respond to the call of the state, take the initiative to undertake major national strategic mechanisms, always adhere to the national interest.”
The Australian government and Defence bureaucracy are belatedly waking up to the stupendous stupidity of the initial decision.
Defence is reviewing the Landbridge lease of the port on the orders of the national security committee of cabinet, amid concerns it could be associated with espionage, sabotage or economic coercion. Australian Strategic Policy Institute director Peter Jennings said he hoped Defence “takes this shot at redemption”, after its “dreadful policy error when it concluded in 2015 that the lease was not a problem”.
“Darwin is emerging as a strategic location not just for Australia, but for our allies and partners. Control of the port matters even more now than it did in 2015”[…]
The FIRB, which was consulted in the deal but not required to explicitly sign-off on it, asked Defence multiple times for its views on the proposed lease, in 2014 and 2015, and was told it had no reservations about the deal.
Perhaps in 2015, governments were still operating under the sunny delusion that China was a fair and benign player in the world – but that doesn’t excuse handing over control of possibly Australia’s most strategically-important ports to a foreign entity. Defence were apparently unable to see what even the otherwise clueless Barack Obama could. The Foreign Investment Review Board, too, was then still acting as little more than a rubber-stamp.
As the hard, cold wind of China reality has blown through Australia, the government has cracked down, passing new laws on foreign interference and pulling the FIRB into line. The new laws have been used to tear up Victoria’s BRI agreements. The Port of Darwin lease looks to be next.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton told Nine newspapers this week that his department had been asked to ‘‘come back with some advice” on the Landbridge lease, and ‘‘we can look at options that are in our national interests after that’’. Scott Morrison last week said if Defence or national security agencies had changed their views on the lease, “then you could expect me as Prime Minister to take that advice very seriously and act accordingly”.
If the government renationalised the port, which Landbridge bought for $509m in 2015, taxpayers would likely be left with a significant compensation bill.
Such a move would also further infuriate the Chinese government, which has piled trade bans on more than $20bn of Australian exports over a raft of grievances.
It’s long past the point where the Australian government has to be “sensitive” to China. Nothing less than humiliating grovelling will mollify a China that has shown itself to be exactly what it is: a global bully. It’s time to stop pretending otherwise.
The price for tearing up the Port of Darwin lease will be high – but the price of selling our sovereignty will be even higher.
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