24th Nov 2015
The decision to offer a century-long lease over the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company feeds into the PRC’s global strategic aims. Australia ignores this consideration at its peril, writes Geoff Wade.
The national and indeed international reactions to the Northern Territory Government’s decision to offer a century-long lease over the port of Darwin to Chinese company Landbridge can be divided essentially into two camps.
The dichotomy has on one side those, such as the Trade Minister Andrew Robb and NT Chief Minister Adam Giles, who simply portray the Darwin deal as important for the economic development of northern Australia.
Those of the other side, including both Australian critics and, sotto voce, the Americans, see the deal as a more complex element in growing the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) influence in Australia, which is increasingly constituting a threat to the country’s independence per se and to Western interests in the South Pacific and globally.
Understanding the significance of this deal requires a much wider lens and broader context than those provided by perceived economic self-interest. China’s national revival and its global economic and strategic extension over the decades since Deng Xiaoping, which Xi Jinping has rebranded as the “Chinese Dream”, provide a much clearer schema in which to situate the Darwin deal.
The “Chinese Dream” involves the reassertion of the economic and political primacy that China claims it has enjoyed over neighbours for millennia. This agenda is now being pursued globally but most intensely in South-East Asia and Australia/New Zealand.
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Throughout the region, China is attempting to establish economic connectors through the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route and the Silk Road Economic Belt, the $100 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the $40 billion Silk Road fund, the internationalisation of the renminbi, the shifting of its industrial production offshore and the various free trade agreements it has entered into. Hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese funds are being invested abroad as the PRC economy and national power expand. Infrastructural investment and control over that infrastructure are key in extending Chinese power across the region.
A vast range of PRC state-owned (and state-linked) enterprises are busy developing their control over infrastructure throughout South-East Asia – funding ports, power generators, energy transmission networks, highways, dams, railways and airports. China already completely dominates the infrastructure sphere and thus the economies of Laos and Cambodia, and Malaysia is swiftly following into that camp. This economic control is a precursor and necessary condition for strategic domination of the region.
Ports are extremely important in this pursuit of regional domination. China has been making great efforts to develop and control Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port and Pakistan’s Gwadar Port to the chagrin of India and is pushing to develop the port of Djibouti in Africa. Within Bangladesh a Chinese “special economic zone” and port are being developed in Anwara, Chittagong. In Myanmar, China has invested in a deep-sea port on Maday Island at Kyaukphyu, to facilitate a $2.5 billion pipeline transporting oil and gas to China’s Yunnan province.
In other parts of South-East Asia, China is also seeking to dominate ports as well as shipping between ports, with Laem Chabang in Thailand, Sihanoukville in Cambodia, Batam in Indonesia and Kuala Tanjung in Northern Sumatra marked for key development. Most recently a “port alliance” has been announced between 10 Chinese ports and five Malaysian ports. The “sister port” tie ups with Kuantan, Melaka, Kedah and Port Klang in Malaysia are readying further nodes in China’s network.
Australia is the natural extension of this agenda and Darwin is intended to be a crucial link in China’s new 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. The Darwin deal will provide Chinese shipping and naval vessels with facilitated access to Australia, the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, as well as to Indonesia and PNG over the coming century.
Chinese control of the port of Darwin marks just the beginning – the so-called “dragonhead” – of PRC economic domination of northern Australia. The aggressive PRC pursuit of Australian infrastructure in all spheres from ports to power networks to railways, clearly reflecting the strategic imperatives of the Chinese state, is matched in degree only by the almost parodic offering to the PRC’s National Development and Reform Commission of lists of key infrastructure projects in which they might like to invest and subsequently control.
While the achievement of PRC economic primacy and control in Australia will be a gradual process, Northern Australia will be essential in the exercise and ChAFTA will be the merciless facilitator. This economic domination will subsequently and inevitably translate into PRC strategic influence over the country. The ultimate goal will be the severing of the US-Australia alliance, an end long pursued by China, as part of the PRC’s intended strategic domination of the Western Pacific.
Those who believe that Chinese economic investment abroad is unconnected with PRC strategic aspirations need only look at the sorts of major infrastructure investments that Chinese firms have made in Australia – China Merchants’ century-long lease of the port of Newcastle (proximate to RAAF Base Williamtown), Landbridge’s century-long lease of the port of Darwin (proximate to RAAF Base Darwin, HMAS Coonawarra and to Larrakeyah Barracks), the new links between Qinzhou and the port of Townsville (proximate to RAAF Base Townsville), and a China-connected firm buying the plot of land next to ASIO headquarters in Canberra.
In addition, we have SOE State Grid controlling Australian energy networks and hoping to gain control of NSW electricity network assets which also carry top-secret ADF communications. Next on the PRC acquisition list will likely be the port of Fremantle (proximate to RAAF Base Pearce and HMAS Stirling). China’s accessing of CYBINT, SIGINT and HUMINT intelligence through these new access points would present ongoing security concerns for Australia.
Every single investment by PRC state-linked companies has a strategic significance and we ignore this at our peril. For all of these reasons there must be great security concerns about the Darwin deal and of our almost unquestioned acceptance of PRC state-linked investment.
The energy expended in denouncing critics of the Darwin deal as xenophobes might be better utilised in trying to understand the global agenda of the autocratic state that is the PRC and Australia’s intended role within this.