The Australian government should consider cancelling the 99-year lease of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese firm if the deal is found to undermine Australia’s national interest, according to a parliamentary committee’s recommendation.
Among its 21 recommendations was a call to reclaim the strategically important Port of Darwin, leased to Chinese firm Landbridge in 2015 by the Northern Territory government for $506 million.
The committee urged the Morrison government to investigate whether the lease is subject to the Foreign Relations law enacted last year. Additionally, it recommended other ports and strategic infrastructure owned or leased to foreign corporations be scrutinised.
Executive Director of the Australia Defence Association (ADA) Neil James told the ABC last year that it is a “dumb idea” to sacrifice Australian strategic power to a Chinese company for short-term financial gain.
“You don’t farm out the risk to everyone in Australia over 99 years to save you some money in the early 20-teens,” he said.
“It was a seriously dumb idea by a government that really hadn’t thought through the consequences, and even if it had, was prepared to ignore the long-term costs, both financial and strategic, they were inflicting on the rest of the country.”
“When you look at a largely unknowable strategic future,” James added, “It’s actually shackled Australia’s ability to defend itself adequately, and the tragedy is it was done unnecessarily.”
In an interview in 2016, Landbridge’s billionaire owner Ye Cheng proclaimed that the 99-year-lease agreement will propel China’s foreign policy goal to expand its geopolitical power via the world-spanning Belt and Road Initiative.
In the report, the committee also examined Australia’s economic reliance on the People’s Republic of China and the need to diversify Australia’s export markets.
Committee Chair, Federal Member for Dawson George Christensen, said Australia was more vulnerable because it put too many of “economic eggs into the one basket,” adding that the basket was “woven by a totalitarian communist state that uses trade as a political weapon.”
“Given the ongoing tensions with communist China, it is an unacceptable security risk to have Chinese state-owned and state-linked enterprises involved in our universities and strategic infrastructure,” he said.
Christensen told The Epoch Times that the government’s failures to “pivot away” from China on trade and investment could result in “dire consequences” for Australia both in terms of the economy and national security.
“The writing was on the wall a long time before the pandemic,” he stated, “I have to say that it’s gone from being too big of a problem to deal with, to too big of a problem to ignore.”
Four Labor members of Parliament, who were part of the committee, also backed trade diversification and criticised the Darwin Port deal, which was then signed between the then-Country Liberal Party government and Landbridge.
Daniel Munilo, federal Labor member for Fraser, said diversifying trade will build upon the “strengths of the relationship with China” by expanding ties to other major economies like India and ASEAN nations.
“This is not about weakening our economic relationship with China,” Munilo said. “This is about a China-plus strategy.”
In 2019, Chief Minister Michael Gunner claimed he would not buy back the Port from Landbridge even if the money was available, instead saying he would prioritise “things that will grow jobs for the Territory.”
Gunner praised the deal as a “very positive investment” for Australia, despite initially slamming it as “nothing more than another one-off cash grab.”
In October, Australia gave a Chinese-linked entity a mining licence for Cockatoo Island in Western Australia, next to the Yampi Sound Defence Training Area.
Concerns were raised in February this year as China was reportedly planning to build a $39 million industrial city on the impoverished Papua New Guinean island of Daru, which is slightly over 100 miles from the coast of Australia.