Australia is reviewing whether to force a Chinese company to sell a lease to a strategically important port used by US Marines, a move that could further stoke tensions with Beijing.
The National Security Committee of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Cabinet has asked the Department of Defence to advise on the ownership, Australian Minister of Defence Peter Dutton said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald published late on Sunday.
Asked whether the government was mulling forced divestment, he said officials would consider the national interests.
The move is likely to further hurt ties between Australia and its largest trading partner, which have nosedived since the call by Morrison’s government a year ago for Beijing to allow independent investigators into Wuhan to probe the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then, China has implemented a range of trade actions against Australian goods, including coal, wine and barley.
The Northern Territory government’s deal in 2015 to sell a 99-year lease to the Port of Darwin to Chinese firm Landbridge Group (嵐橋集團) for A$506 million (US$392 million) has been criticized by security experts.
It came four years after then-US president Barack Obama secured a deal to base about 2,500 Marines in Darwin, which is on the doorstep of the Indo-Pacific region.
In December 2015, the Australian Department of Defence dismissed concerns that the sale could undermine national security after the US queried the deal.
Then-Australian secretary of defence Dennis Richardson said that worries the Chinese People’s Liberation Army could secure access to port facilities were “alarmist nonsense,” adding that there was no chance of China spying on US-Australian communications because naval vessels go silent in any commercial port.
“Australia may be thinking its stocks with China are so low at the moment that it may as well do this now,” said John Blaxland, a former intelligence officer who is now a professor in international security at the Australian National University. “While the efficacy of this course of action is unclear, it is possible intelligence officials have briefed the government that risks from China’s ownership now merit a reversal of the sale.”
China slammed Australia’s decision last month to use new laws to cancel Belt and Road agreements with the Victorian state government.
There has been increasing speculation Morrison might use the laws, passed in December last year, to scrap long-term leases held by Chinese companies at the ports in Darwin and Newcastle.
“In relation to the Port of Darwin, if there is any advice that I receive from the Department of Defence or intelligence agencies that suggest there are national security risks there, then you would expect the government to take action on that,” Morrison said in a radio interview on Friday.
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