When the out-of-touch political elite bites the hand that feeds its voters: The Darwin Port case

The Darwin Port case

It was OK with ASIO, the Defense Department, the Treasury Minister of the day (Scott Morrison) and it was definitely OK with the Northern Territory government to lease the Port of Darwin to a Chinese contractor. It was even OK with the Obama Administration who would have vetoed it for sure if they had a problem. But over the first 8 years of a 99-year lease, something changed.

Darwin Port was in a state of disrepair, the local government had done little or nothing over years of public ownership, the Northern Territory government admitted the Port was in need of major overhaul but they didn’t want to invest in it so they sought contractors who would. 

Thirty-three companies tendered and, after months of scrutiny and investigations, Landbridge Industry Australia, a subsidiary of Landbridge Shandong, won the contract. Only then came questions about the owner, Le Cheng’s connections to the CPC and President Xi.

That’s all there are, questions. Questions raised by media and nothing more. After ASIO ticked it off, PM Malcolm Turnbull approved it, the deal was signed in November 2015, a significant date because just a few weeks later, on 20th December, a Free Trade Agreement with China entered into force and this, as with the half a billion-dollar windfall for the Northern Territory, was very good news for Australia.

Good news indeed, China accounts for one third of all Australia’s trade, Australia is the only country in the developed world to have a trade surplus with China. China is, at the same time, the largest customer of Australian resources and agricultural products as well as Australia’s largest supplier. And now a Chinese company rents, but doesn’t own Darwin’s port.

If we read Australian media, we can be forgiven for thinking there are problems, but China and Australia are in fact, on a path to recovery from problems caused by the previous government. Since June 2022, one month after the current government took office, there have been 19 high level meetings or visits between Australian Ministers, Deputy and Prime Ministers; another PM visit has been confirmed during the next few weeks. Our media aren’t being honest. 

Darwin Port raises questions only because media wants to raise questions, if the media weren’t asking, no one would care. For many years, without any evidence or truth, media such as the Australian Financial Review and ABC have questioned links between the owner of the Landbridge and China’s government, there’s still no evidence of a link and, even if there were, would it matter? China’s Communist government opened in 1979 and Australia has become wealthy because of it.

Consistently, China has dealt with Australia in a fair manner, yes, there were some issues but they were not of China’s making, the “disputed coal” was proven by Parliamentarian Andrew Wilkie, to be inferior coal, China was right to reject it but is now accepting coal again. Barley and wine were being dumped into China, once again, China was right to stop that happening and, in the case of Barley, the issue is now resolved and, hopefully very soon, wine will be too. These were nothing more than small, relatively insignificant matters which were blown out of all proportion by media creating, and politicians riding, a wave of anti-China sentiment.

Wherever we look we hear allegations of an “increasingly aggressive” China. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) this is not the case. 

China’s neighbors, the Philippines, South Korea, Japan and many other Pacific islands, are bristling with US weapons directed at China, China has consistently stated it is prepared to wait a thousand years for peaceful reunification with Taiwan while the USA has landed troops, conducted military drills with allies, including Australia around Taiwan, sent senior level political visitors and added more weapons under a Ukraine style aid package to a recognized and accepted, although renegade, province of China. 

USA is now offering F16 fighter jets to Vietnam, clearly these aren’t for aerial display purposes and now USA is trading “secret” arms deals with Pakistan, another of China’s neighbors. 

None of this is evidence of China’s military aggression, it’s quite the opposite, China has exhibited discipline and levels of self-control which show a high level of maturity. A 2022 Pentagon report to Congress indicated that the Pakistan port of Gwadar “could one day host the People’s Liberation Army Navy” and indeed it could but there’s still no evidence that it ever will and facts prove, it never has.

Australia is what it is today because it escaped the Financial crash of 2008 relatively unscathed, it did this because of the trade volume with China, it was resources that kept Australia afloat and those resources need to be shipped.

Since the tender was won by what was, at the time a “friendly” nation we should ask ourselves what changed and why there are now security concerns which didn’t exist then. The number of US Marines in Darwin has changed; from a few hundred to a few thousand and the Tindal Air Base is changing to accommodate nuclear capable B52 bombers and then there’s AUKUS. 

And there it is, in a nutshell, the security threat isn’t China. If Australians really aren’t sure about what’s going on in Darwin Port, perhaps they could ask the management team: CEO, Peter Dummett, a 20 year Royal Australian Navy Veteran or the GM Operations, Ian Niblock an Australian Master Mariner with 44 years-experience. There isn’t a Chinese name in the management team. Furthermore, if there is a conflict with China there are thousands of military personnel, US and Australian, within a few kilometers of Darwin Port, they can easily take control from the Australian management team, China’s nearest troops in Hainan are 6,000 kilometers away; where’s the threat?

What Australia really should do, is work with China, as they did between 1979 and 2015. Australia was indeed the Lucky Country during periods of global recession, they have a financial cushion of exports to China, and China pays enough for them that Australians continue to earn decent income, allowing imports of finished products from their biggest supplier, China.

It’s not to Australia’s advantage to park nuclear capable bombers or nuclear powered (or armed) submarines in an Australian port that is being well-managed by Aussies who happen to work for a Chinese boss. The government of the day, the Defense department, DFAT, the Intelligence community never had a problem, why is it then that media keeps creating a perceived risk by asking the same constantly unanswered question?