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Australia Reconsiders China’s Lease of Darwin Port

The Australian government is reconsidering its decision to lease the Darwin port to a Chinese-owned company and may suspend the lease in response to national security concerns.

In 2015, the government of the Northern Territory of Australia reached a lease agreement with the Chinese company, Landbridge Group. Landbridge paid a one-time rent of over AU$500 million for the right to operate the Port of Darwin for up to 99 years, claiming at the time that the deal would promote Australia-China trade and tourism.

Huangfu Jing, an Australian commentator, observed that, with the deterioration of Australia-China relations, local opposition has been growing louder and louder. “In the early years, the international environment had not come to the point it is at today. The mainstream (Australian) society, especially the business community, believed that we could make money and trade with China. It (the Northern Territory government) made use of such opinions and facilitated the sale for its own benefit.”

The Port of Darwin is a dual-use civilian and military port, where U.S. Marines are stationed on a rotational basis. Huangfu added, “Beijing actually monitors every move the US Marines make in the Northern Territory and (the deal) does far more damage to Australia’s national interests than what the rental income covers. Landbridge is ostensibly a private company, but few Chinese private enterprises that can invest overseas are not under Beijing’s control.”

Australian media reports that the National Security Committee in Canberra has asked the Department of Defence to review and advise on the lease. Prime Minister Morrison also said last week that if national security becomes an issue at the port, action should be taken.

Joseph Cheng, retired professor at the City University of Hong Kong, said the Darwin Port is sensitive not only because of the presence of U.S. troops, but also because China sees it as a breakthrough in promoting its “Belt and Road” strategy. “There is an immense ocean stretching from China to the South Pacific. If China could obtain some bases on some of the islands, it would be very helpful to China for it to maintain a global communication system and a global satellite monitoring system. It would be very convenient to have Darwin Port as a connection point in the middle. The port stretches north to Papua New Guinea and then to Indonesia. The waters between the north coast of Australia and Indonesia are also believed to have rich oil and other energy resources.”

Source: Radio Free Asia, May 3, 2021