Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has not ruled out reviewing the controversial 99-year lease of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese-backed entity.
“If there is advice from the Defence Department or our security agencies that change their view about the national security implications of any piece of critical infrastructure,” Morrison told reporters. “We have legislation now which is dealing with critical infrastructure.”
“You can expect me as prime minister to take that advice very seriously and act accordingly.”
Morrison was in Darwin announcing a substantial $747 million upgrade to four military facilities in northern Australia.
His comments echo those of Defence Minister Peter Dutton, who said on Sunday, “I think it is a question for (Foreign Minister) Marise Payne to look at these individual cases. If it is not in our national interests, then obviously she will act.”
Questions have been raised over the possible cancellation of the lease after the foreign minister terminated two Belt and Road Initiative agreements signed by Victoria’s state Premier Daniel Andrews.
In 2015, the Port of Darwin was leased to Chinese state-owned firm Landbridge for $506 million by the heavily indebted Northern Territory government.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama conveyed his concerns about the deal directly to then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, particularly given the presence of U.S. troops in the region.
In response, Morrison—who was treasurer at the time—expanded the remit of the Foreign Investment Review Board so that all Australian asset sales to foreign entities would be subject to federal approval.
In 2016, the billionaire owner of Landbridge, Ye Cheng, boasted that acquiring the Port of Darwin would assist the expansion of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The BRI is the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) trillion-dollar global infrastructure building fund and arguably the “crown jewel” of Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions.
However, it has been accused of being a “trojan horse” and leaving developing countries heavily in debt.
Last week, Foreign Minister Payne exercised powers granted to her by the Foreign Relations Act to terminate BRI agreements signed between Victoria and the National Development and Reform Commission.
The Foreign Relations Act opens the door for the foreign minister to step in and potentially cancel other deals signed with the CCP, including Confucius Institutes and sister-city agreements.
However, Australian political leaders have eyed off the Port of Darwin lease for termination under the new law.
Yet, one stumbling block to cancelling the lease is that the $506 million paid by Landbridge is now long gone, having been used by the NT government to address its ballooning debt problems.
Independent Senator Rex Patrick told Sky News Australia that he was unsure whether the Foreign Relations Act had the power to terminate the lease.
“During the inquiry into the Foreign Relations Bill, the Port of Darwin was brought up extensively, and it didn’t appear to fall within the scope of what the government was proposed,” he said.
“It’s unclear whether or not the minister has the power to do anything to reverse that decision which I think most Australians don’t think is a good decision.”
Morrison told reporters that any review of the Port of Darwin would occur under the scope of amendments to the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act 2018 introduced last year.
The amendments give the treasurer sweeping powers to retroactively reverse foreign investment decisions deemed to contravene Australia’s national interest.