U.S. Polled Australians Over Lease of Darwin Port to Chinese

  • Strategic port to house 2,500 Marines, hosts military drills
  • Survey found majority saw lease as security risk: Australian

The U.S. State Department commissioned opinion polls in Australia to seek views on the lease of a strategic port to a Chinese company, amid concerns by the Obama administration about the deal.

The Port of Darwin in Australia’s far north will be home to as many as 2,500 U.S. Marines, and its leasing for 99 years to closely-held Chinese company Landbridge Group prompted President Barack Obama to query why he hadn’t been notified of the deal.

The polling found 89 percent of respondents believed the leasing posed at least some risk to national security, the Australian newspaper reported Wednesday. Two surveys of more than 1,000 Australians were commissioned last month and undertaken on behalf of a branch of the U.S. Bureau of Intelligence Research, the newspaper said.

The State Department “routinely conducts public opinion polls in countries around the world to supplement publicly-available polling and help us understand international perspectives,” spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday in an e-mailed statement. “We accept assurances from the Australian government that they conducted a review of security concerns related to the port’s operations.”

South China Sea

In the South China Sea to Australia’s north, China is building a military presence on reclaimed reefs in busy shipping and fishing areas that are contested by other nations. The U.S. frequently patrols the waters. The tensions are a headache for Australia, which last month said it supports the U.S. as the main global military power even as it seeks stronger economic ties with China, its largest trading partner.

The U.S. action points to flaws in Australia’s position that it doesn’t need to make a choice in ties between the U.S. and China, according to Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.

“It shows the depth of American unease about how close Australia has become to China,” White said. “Australia does have to make choices about the U.S. and China, we make them all time. The more intense their rivalry becomes, those choices will become starker.”

PLA Ties

Landbridge, which operates a 30 million metric ton per annum port in North Haizhou Bay in Shandong province, is paying A$506 million ($376 million) for the lease to operate Darwin, with the Northern Territory government planning to use the proceeds to invest in new infrastructure.

The leasing led Australia to order a review of its foreign investment laws. The deal didn’t need approval from the federal regulator as the local government, which owned the port, was solely responsible for approving it.

Treasurer Scott Morrison said in December he was seeking agreement from states and territories to boost co-operation in reviewing sales of critical infrastructure assets to foreign investors.

Documents issued by the Port of Darwin describe how the city’s “position as a key strategic port city for Australian and allied defense forces, with dedicated facilities at its Fort Hill Wharf, is further cemented by U.S. Marines being based in Darwin and U.S. naval assets visiting the region.”

Intelligence Collection

Analysis of the opinion polls concluded that Landbridge’s “reported ties” to China’s People’s Liberation Army “raise concerns port access could facilitate intelligence collection on U.S. and Australian military forces stationed nearby,” the Australian reported.

“Everything we do in this area is very carefully determined to assure that our respective military forces work together as closely as possible in our mutual national interests,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told reporters in Adelaide on Wednesday when asked about the surveys. “The closeness of the Australian security relationship with the United States is hardly a secret.”

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade didn’t immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment on the surveys.

Darwin’s strategic importance to the U.S. was highlighted by Pacific Air Forces chief, General Lori Robinson, in a press briefing in Canberra on Tuesday. The U.S. is continuing talks with Australia to have B-1 bombers rotate through Darwin, she said.

The State Department said Wednesday that “Australia alone determines its criteria for foreign investment projects.”

“As close strategic allies, the United States and Australia discuss a wide range of matters, including issues related to national security,” Kirby said. “The United States discussed with the government of Australia issues related to the Port of Darwin lease.”

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