04 May Port’s owner vows to work towards ‘a dominant China’
Ben Packham – The Australian – Tuesday 4 May 2021
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”.
Landbridge, whose 99-year lease of the port is being reviewed on national security grounds, has argued against claims since the deal was signed in 2015 that it is too close to the Chinese Communist Party to resist doing its bidding.
But 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 … and strive to become the most influential multinational enterprise group on the Eastern Coast of China.”
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,” Mr Jennings writes in The Australian on Tuesday.
He says it is unsurprising Chinese businesses “will go to considerable lengths to please the CCP”. “The only sensible national response is to ask what Chinese business support for CCP objectives might mean for Chinese- owned and controlled Australian critical infrastructure — ports, the electricity grid, gas pipelines, information-technology, agricultural businesses — at a time when the CCP is ‘punishing’ Australia,” Mr Jennings says.
The chairman of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, James Paterson, said even Chinese business people “with the most innocent and pure motivations” were subject to CCP coercion. “There is no such thing as a purely private business in China. Just ask (Alibaba founder) Jack Ma,” Senator Paterson said.
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.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin last week warned the Morrison government to “stop disrupting normal exchange and co-operation with China”.
China’s state-sanctioned Global Times newspaper said the ending of the lease “would mark a sad and new low in bilateral relations”. In an editorial, it said Chinese companies needed to prepare for legal recourse to defend their rights and interests against “Canberra’s deliberate provocation”.
The privately owned Landbridge Group rejected commentary in 2015 by China expert Geoff Wade, who said the company was “a commercial front intimately tied to state-owned operations, the party and the (People’s Liberation Army)”.
Its vice-president in Australia, Mike Hughes, told The Australian on Monday that the company bought the lease to the port “in good faith following a transparent process in 2015”.
“Our involvement was reviewed by both (the Foreign Investment Review Board) and the Department of Defence at the time and it has been subject to a Senate inquiry,” he said.
“We are aware of reports of a new review to be conducted by the Department of Defence and are willing to participate in this review as required.”
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.
The government has since changed the law, requiring the FIRB to specifically approve all investments in a “sensitive national security business”, regardless of the value of the deal.