By ERWIN CHLANDA
The leasing by the Giles Government of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company with links to the Chinese military took place with scant involvement of the asset’s owners, the people of the Northern Territory.
National and international anxiety over the deal is growing and it may yet be disallowed under Federal powers over the Territory which it does not have over states: To have an American controlled railway feeding into a Chinese controlled port may be just a bridge too far.
As things stand, Territorians have received a meagre $506m for the 99 year use of what is broadly seen as a vital installation for Australia’s defence and the much-touted “development of the north”.
There clearly are two issues: One is the privatisation of the port, a proposition known to the public; and the other is the lease to the Chinese firm Landbridge, concealed from the public until the deal had been done.
Chief Minister Adam Giles is misleading the public on the second point: He claims “we have listened carefully to the concerns of the community and the Parliament”.
His government, together with Landbridge, issued a FAQ “fact sheet” that contains a sub-heading “How was the successful bidder selected?”
This is part of the 112 word paragraph: “The Government consulted with the Select [Parliamentary] Committee, which included all sides of politics, and committed to supporting all of its recommendations.”
The clear impression is created that the Select Committee had a hand in choosing Landbridge. This is entirely false.
The committee consisted of CLP MLAs Nathan Barrett (chair) and Lia Finocchiaro, Opposition Leader Michael Gunner and Independent Gerry Wood.
Mr Wood says the committee’s sole task was to make a recommendation as to whether the port should be privatised. It had nothing to do with how the successful bidder should be selected, nor who it should be.
He says the committee took the view that privatisation was OK, that part foreign ownership was OK, but that a significant parcel of shares should remain in Australian hands.
Mr Wood says no figure was recommended: His own view was that Australian ownership should exceed 50% but to “get a consensus on the committee I supported a more general recommendation”.
The government finally decided to retain 20% and find an Australian buyer of that. It is clear that 20% is far from significant in a decision-making sense.
Mr Wood said China and Landbridge had never been part of the committee’s terms of reference, had never been discussed by it and had not been in any way subjects of the committee’s recommendations.
Mr Gunner said immediately after the decision was announced: “This is a short sighted decision that is not in the long term interests of Territorians. A new and growing Port has now been taken out of the control of Territorians and Territorian decision making.
“The CLP has … chosen to take the cash. By contrast Labor would have retained control of the Port and did the hard yards seeking investment in Port infrastructure through joint agreements – just as we did with the Marine Supply Base.
“The CLP has no mandate to sell or lease the Port. A decision of this magnitude should always be determined by the people.”
Almost immediately following the announcement by Mr Giles, Landbridge’s involvement with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) became a national issue.
The involvement was disclosed by Geoff Wade (pictured), a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, raising issues which the people of the Northern Territory no doubt would have liked to ponder before handing over a major public facility.
Says Mr Wade: “Landbridge is a commercial front intimately tied to state-owned operations, the [Chinese Communist] party and the PLA.
“But this should come as a surprise to no-one. Party control within nominally commercial operations is precisely how the PRC [People’s Republic of China] ensures that Chinese economic activity abroad is fully in accord with and serves PRC strategic interests.”
Mr Wade says this is obvious from Chinese efforts to develop sea ports in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa.
“Darwin is intended to be a key link in China’s new 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, providing Chinese access to both the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, as well as to Indonesia and PNG.”
More concerning, Mr Wade disclosed statements on the Landbridge Group’s Chinese language website, which reports “a meeting to formally establish the Armed Militia of the Landbridge Group” in August 2014, attended by several PLA officers.
Supporters of the port deal pooh-pooh this as some kind of benign company security force, but the Landbridge online statement says: “Throughout, the Landbridge Group has firmly upheld the ideal of ‘A strong enterprise does not forget to repay the country, while a prosperous enterprise does not forget national defence.’
“[Landbridge] has actively supported the army through culture and supported the army through science and technology. It has resolved difficulties and served as a logistic backup for military units engaged in maritime training, and for the military units based in Rizhao.
“The establishment of the Landbridge Group’s Armed Militia manifests the true melding of a strong enterprise and an active armed militia under the Landbridge Group.”
The NT Government says there had been discussions, whose full content is not known, between the NT Government and the Secretary of the Department of Defence, Dennis Richardson.
But Defence Minister Marise Payne says neither she nor the Department knew anything about the deal until “a few hours” before Mr Giles announced it on October 13 (ABC, November 25).
When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull copped a reprimand from US President Barack Obama for the USA not being informed about the port deal with China, Mr Turnbull’s flippant response was well off the mark: He suggested Mr Obama could have found out by subscribing to the NT News.
But a search for the word “Landbridge” in the paper’s online archive throws up only one mention prior to October 13.
It was a report about a proposal for an airline service between Darwin and China. There was no mention of the Port of Darwin.
The Alice Springs News Online put 35 questions to Mr Giles on issues relating to the processes and approval of the Landbridge contract at 7:30am on Monday. So far we’ve had an answer to just one – there were 39 bidders for the port. We will report the responses as they come to hand.
Meanwhile the Tokyo based Nikkei Asian Review this week described as “alarming developments for the US and Japan” the Darwin port lease, Australian air links and other ventures with China. These could include the NT Government’s letting the Tennant Creek to Mount Isa pipeline contract to majority Chinese-owned Jemena.
The Review said on Monday that US and Japan “are attempting to use the TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact] to forge a new economic order in the region even as Beijing maneuvers to create an East Asian economic zone to its own liking.
“US Marines based in Darwin are keeping an eye on the South China Sea, where China’s growing assertiveness has aggravated territorial disputes.
“But China may have become the first to secure a solid grip on the Australian port.”
Stand by for more.
PHOTOS: Philip Wen, China correspondent for Fairfax Media, reported from Rizhao where Mr Giles was feted by Ye Cheng, the billionaire boss of Landbridge, with a baijiu banquet: “After downing the obligatory shots of the fiery sorghum-based liquor [Mr Giles], wrapped Mr Ye Cheng in a tight hug,” Mr Wen reports. “In Australia business people who take a risk are often criticised, but they’re the people who make jobs,” Mr Giles told his Chinese counterpart during the lavish 12-course dinner. “You’re not just an honorary Australian, you’re an honorary Territorian.” “You are a good friend, a brother and a good partner,” replied Mr Ye, who might well feel he has not been embraced the same way by the rest of Australia. [Photos: Sanghee Liu.] • Port Darwin – as Yasu Ota of the Nikkei Asian Review illustrated his report this week •
Darwin port: Captain's call by Giles rocks boat
By ERWIN CHLANDA