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Australia Must Stop Jumping at Chinese Shadows

Australia Must Stop Jumping at Chinese Shadows

Wednesday, 5 May, 2021 - 04:00

Paranoia is never a good basis for decision-making.

Australia’s Department of Defense ought to consider that in its review of the 99-year lease that China’s Landbridge Group took over the Port of Darwin in 2015. The department has been tasked with looking into security implications of the deal and advising whether Landbridge should be forced to give up the lease under laws governing critical infrastructure passed in 2018.

The agreement started to ring alarm bells almost as soon as it was announced. Darwin, a steamy port in Australia’s tropical north, is home to as many as 2,500 US Marines. They’ve taken part in joint training programs with the Australian Defense Force since 2012 as part of Washington’s shift toward deeper engagement in the Indian and Pacific Oceans — a pivot itself provoked by concerns about Beijing’s growing influence in the region. Ships traveling to the two main wharves included in the lease go directly past HMAS Coonawarra, an Australian naval base that guards the entry to Darwin Harbor. President Barack Obama raised concerns with then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull soon after the deal was announced.

Still, defense officials should think about how ports actually operate before they unilaterally revoke the A$506 million ($391 million) agreement.

While 99-year leases have great symbolic value, commercial harbors have very little strategic importance. Governments, not port operators, are in charge of deciding which goods are allowed to cross borders. Militarily, commercial ports are useless: Foreign naval vessels will rarely be able to get within 12 nautical miles of another country’s coastline without being challenged by the nation in question.

They’re worthless for espionage about the host nation’s navy, too. Military ships don’t operate critical communications devices anywhere near civilian ports or the cities that host them. If you wanted a look at day-to-day operations at Darwin’s naval base, you’d get a better view from the roof terrace of a city-center penthouse apartment. Anyone seeking to eavesdrop on comings and goings at the Marines’ barracks, meanwhile, should buy one of the auto-repair shops or garden centers that surround it on the outskirts of Darwin, rather than dropping half a billion dollars on a berthing facility 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away.

Chinese companies certainly own a wide array of port facilities around the world. State-owned Cosco Group has interests in the port of Long Beach near Los Angeles, Athens’s ancient port of Piraeus, and Europe’s biggest harbor at Rotterdam, among other locations.

If you’re given to jumping at China-shaped shadows, you can see that as evidence of Beijing’s far-reaching influence. More level-headed observers, however, might reflect that foreign governments are so willing to sign over port leases precisely because they don’t have any real strategic significance. With exports that exceed imports by several hundred billion dollars a year, China needs a constant stream of overseas investments to settle its balance of payments. Ports, like government bonds and Belt and Road projects, are one way of doing that.

To be sure, there’s some level of investment where foreign commercial players attain such size and pervasiveness that their very presence can influence the direction of government. That seems to be the case with Chinese involvement in Cambodia, for instance, and it’s the way that European empires came to control swathes of Asia from Mumbai to Dalian. Australia, however, is nowhere close to such a situation — and the fate of Darwin, a sleepy port where shipment volumes have been falling ever since Landbridge signed its deal, is unlikely to decide the question either way.

Caught in the middle of the deteriorating relationship between its most important ally, the US, and its largest trading partner, China, Australia seems to be following a path of picking pointless symbolic fights and ruing the results at its leisure.

A decision to block a dairy takeover last year on spurious national security grounds left the government without a leg to stand on when Beijing subsequently halted imports of Australian barley, lobsters and coal. The federal government’s revocation last month of a substance-free memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road signed by Victoria state merely poked the Chinese hornet’s nest without achieving anything.

There are real issues on which Canberra should be confronting Beijing, such as the status of arrested Australian citizens; freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; and the diminishing rights of people in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Picking symbolic battles over ports wastes precious political capital that would be better spent elsewhere. International diplomacy isn’t a school-yard fight, and Australia is only going to lose in a tit-for-tat battle with its far larger partner. Let’s hope Canberra’s defense bureaucrats show more foresight than its politicians.


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