Strategic sabotage: China’s new ‘commercial’ foothold in Australia

Strategic sabotage: China’s new ‘commercial’ foothold in Australia
HMAS Coonawarra, the navl HQ at Darwin. (Image: HMAS Coonawarra)

Things are starting to happen now that won’t un-happen short of tremendous breaches of convention – or even regime change, or major war.

One of the most important developments is the leasing of an Australian port to the Chinese firm Landbridge Group.  The 99-year lease was announced in October 2015.  Landbridge will control port operations for the duration of that lease.

In the months afterward, Australians have awakened to what happened, and are becoming understandably concerned.  The Chinese company didn’t lease just any old port.  It leased the port of Darwin, in the Northern Territory facing the Timor Sea.  The port provides the Australian navy with its closest base to the South China Sea.  However sleepy and laid-back the surrounding area, the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN’s) front-line forces use this base for their operations.

Map 1. Overview of Darwin, Northern Territory, in relation to Southeast Asia. (Google map; author annotation)
Map 1. Overview of Darwin, Northern Territory, in relation to Southeast Asia. (Google map; author annotation)

Darwin is also where the contingent of U.S. Marines, deployed in rotation to Australia by the Obama Defense Department, is based.  (The facility used by the Marines, Robertson Barracks, is about 5 statute miles from the navy base.)

And the Australian air base in Darwin is one of two bases the U.S. is negotiating to use for strategic bomber rotations.  The Australians use it for reconnaissance aircraft, which conduct long-range patrols of the Southeast Asian maritime, and are one of the core elements of allied security there.

Map 2.  Darwin area facilities.  The U.S. Marines are at Robertson Barracks.  See Map 3 for the outline of the port complex, with all the major wharf areas indicated.  Landbridge Group will control or have access to virtually all of it, other than the HMAS Coonawarra and Larrakeyah Barracks reserves, on the tip of the Darwin peninsula. (Google map/satellite imagery; author annotation)
Map 2. Darwin area facilities. The U.S. Marines are at Robertson Barracks. See Map 3 for the outline of the port complex, with all the major wharf areas indicated. Landbridge Group will control or have access to virtually all of it, other than the HMAS Coonawarra and Larrakeyah Barracks reserves, on the tip of the Darwin peninsula. (Google map/satellite imagery; author annotation)

It would be hilarious under any circumstances to seriously suggest that China had none of this in mind when the Landbridge Group paid 20% more than the two closest bidders for the long-term lease on Darwin port.  But circumstances, of course, are not random here.

Australian experts studying Chinese commercial firms report that the Landbridge Group is closely linked to the People’s Liberation Army, China’s military establishment.  Indeed, Landbridge has a company project in the works to form an internal “people’s militia.”  The freighted word “militia” is more indicative of direct links to the Chinese Communist Party than of an intent for the firm itself to engage in “military” operations – but the links to the CCP are quite enough.

Of course Landbridge will be in Darwin to spy on Australian and U.S. military activity.  The fool is the person who thinks there’s some alternative reality.

But China could find ways to spy without necessarily having a 99-year lease on the port, and control of its operations.  It’s the latter that will be of particular concern. Landbridge will be in a position, on order, to sabotage local military operations, and deny or sabotage services to our allied forces.  It will also be in a unique position to smuggle into Australia anything that will fit in a shipping container.

Map 3.  Darwin port. (Map graphic: Government of the Northern Territory)
Map 3. Darwin port. (Map graphic: Government of the Northern Territory)

As just one example of the vulnerability created by the Darwin port lease, it turns out that the fuel reservoirs used by warships in the port complex are located in an area controlled by Landbridge.

Consider: when it comes to fuel, a saboteur doesn’t even need to withhold it from the end-user; he just needs to contaminate it.  From Landbridge’s position, the service organizations controlled by the company could well have access not only to the marine fuel used by the navies, but to at least some of the aviation fuel used by the Australian and U.S. air forces, and the U.S. Marines.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the lease was negotiated and signed in a bizarre series of events, with the government of the Northern Territory having the lead, and a virtually inexplicable lack of proper oversight by the Australian federal government.

One of the absurd outcomes is that the RAN has guaranteed access to its own facilities in Darwin port for only the first 25 years of the lease.  Beyond that, RAN access will have to be renegotiated.  If ever there were time for a hearty “WTF? Over” – this is it.

According to Mr. Brian Wilson, chairman of Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board (the certifying agency for the lease deal at the federal level), he asked the Defence Department three times for a more in-depth consideration of the national security implications of the lease, and would have asked again if he had known about the 25-year limit.

Says the Australian Financial Review (last link, above):

The testimony of [officials] Wilson and Irvine suggests that while Defence ultimately approved the deal they failed to give it due consideration. …

In reviewing the evidence given to the inquiry, Peter Jennings from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, goes a step further in highlighting Defence’s failure to address the issue.

He says the highest level of Defence never considered the bigger strategic implications of the deal.

“Nothing came out of the Defence Department by way of formal written advice,” says Jennings, who in a previous life was responsible for the section within Defence which gave such advice. “It was a clear administrative failure which happened at a pretty junior level within the Department.”

But wait!  There’s more.  With one scalp on their belts, the Chinese are now in search of a bigger one in Australia.  The Chinese sovereign wealth fund, China Investment Corp. – whose activities are controlled by the CCP – is looking to acquire Asciano Ltd., Australia’s largest operator of ports and railroads.

Get your expletives out of the way now, because this major strategic move isn’t going to stop of its own accord.  We can hope the Australians will hold the line on this new effort.  But there is real reason to be concerned that the Darwin port lease was able to happen, with federal officials and lawmakers only finding out afterward what all the terms were.

If it isn’t clear to you, this is a yuuge breach of America’s core security arrangements.  The most fundamental condition we have maintained since 1945 is the forward guarantee of our ocean bastions with the alliances in the Western Pacific and Europe.  The reason it is cost-effective to defend the Pacific and Atlantic is that we have strong alliances making the territory on the other side of those waters friendly.

Of all our allies in the Far East, Japan and Australia have been the ones we could rely on most to remain unbreachable by Chinese influence.  We can still assume that Japan will resist subversion by China (in fact, Japan is making welcome strategic outreaches – an irony, to be sure – to nations like the Philippines and Vietnam, as China encroaches further and further on the South China Sea).

But it’s not clear what is to be done about the Darwin port lease in Australia.  It is a massive strategic vulnerability, and cannot be framed otherwise.  Where China’s probes at Japan, Singapore, and Djibouti are worrisome, the Darwin port lease is a blow to the solar plexus.

Does the U.S. move our Marines?  Give up on bomber rotations through Darwin?  Does Australia rethink her military arrangements?  Do the Australians buy out the Darwin lease and kick China out?  Do they find a way to kick China out without monetary compensation?

I’m doubtful about the latter measures.  They would be justified.  China can’t safely be left with the foothold she now has in Australia with the Landbridge lease.  But a diplomatic rejection on such a scale is typically unthinkable, between nations that are trying to have amicable relations.

The port lease in Australia is the kind of thing that usually gets adjusted either during the prelude to a major war, or in its aftermath.  If it doesn’t get adjusted somehow – perhaps through a change of leadership in China, as unlikely as that is – it’s going to have an impact on Australia’s character and quality as a U.S. ally.

Long-time allies.  U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Eric Dougherty and Sgt. Maj. Marcus Chestnut watch as U.S. Marines with 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, Marine Rotational Force – Darwin and soldiers with the 1st Brigade, Australian Army, graduate from the Australian Subject One Corporal Course, Sep 2015, at Robertson Barracks.  (Image: UAMC/MARFORPAC)
Long-time allies. U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Eric Dougherty and Sgt. Maj. Marcus Chestnut watch as U.S. Marines with 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, Marine Rotational Force – Darwin and soldiers with the 1st Brigade, Australian Army, graduate from the Australian Subject One Corporal Course, Sep 2015, at Robertson Barracks. (Image: UAMC/MARFORPAC)

We’re done with the post-Pax period of little shifts.  The big ones are beginning: the ones that cut close to the bone.

The right thing for the U.S. to do, short of Australia kicking the Chinese out, is to put our forward-deployed forces elsewhere.  The most important priority by far is to eliminate the vulnerability.

But I feel as keenly as the next person the awfulness of having to make such a decision.  Australia is one of our very best allies.  The idea that we can’t trust Australia’s internal, national arrangements is the kind of tectonic shift in security factors that one would rather go a lifetime without ever facing.  (I suspect the Tony Abbott government would not have let this happen, incidentally.)

One thing we can assume: Obama will do nothing useful or appropriate about this.  We’ll get to spend the next 10 months, at the least, knowing that our Marines and our other visiting forces are in Darwin at the sufferance of China, and under China’s constant surveillance.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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