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Australia divided over Darwin Port lease to Chinese firm Landbridge

The Port of Darwin in north Australia (Photo: Darwin Port Twitter)

A review by Australia’s Department of Defence has not found any national security risk that justifies canceling the 99-year-lease of the Darwin Port to Chinese company Landbridge.

The Australian media reported that Defence Minister Peter Dutton had pushed for a review of the port deal as relations between the two nations deteriorated in the last two years over investigating the 'origins of the coronavirus'. Handing over the Darwin Port to the Chinese company had sounded like a security threat as the port is used by both civilian and naval ships.

The US$367 million lease for 99 years to the Chinese company had been approved by the provincial government of the Northern Territory in 2015. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the Australian media that the federal government will intervene only "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".

The lease for the Darwin Port has cleaved opinion in Australia as many believe that the port is strategically important for defence and navy purposes. India Narrative had reported earlier how the port is important not just for Australia but the US also.

The Australian government is still reviewing the matter, though many experts, and also the opposition parties, disagree with the review by the department of defence.

Labor defence spokesperson Brendan O'Connor said that the deal should have never happened. O'Connor was quoted by the Australian Associated Press as saying: "The Port of Darwin is a critical strategic asset for Australia. Australians know this foreign privatisation deal should never have happened on Mr Morrison's watch – that's just common sense".

The port deal is viewed with suspicion in Australia as the winning company, the Landbridge Group, is owned by billionaire Ye Cheng who is believed to have close ties to the Communist Party of China. Many experts say that Chinese companies cannot say no to the dictates of the Communist party.

Moreover, the Darwin Port which lies to the north of Australia is believed to be strategically important as it lies next to an American military base. The then American president, Barack Obama had criticised Australia over the decision to lease the strategic port to China.

Canberra-based think tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute had noted that the Darwin Port is a “crucial strategic asset” that would be strategically valuable in the event China invades Taiwan.

The Darwin Port handles the maritime exercises of Australian forces as well as visits by foreign navies. It also handles military equipment and materials which are used by the Australian military and the US defence forces stationed ‌in Australia.

Increasing trade tensions between Beijing and Canberra have put the Darwin Port deal in the limelight. The Morrison government is in a dilemma as the deal had been signed by the provincial government and now it is up to Morrison to sort it out.