Australia is moving to repair ties with China ahead of Anthony Albanese’s trip to Beijing, ruling out cancelling a Chinese company’s lease over the strategically important Port of Darwin.
The move, which is likely to be welcomed by the Chinese government, comes as Australia also prepares to scrap tariffs on imports of Chinese wind towers, potentially defusing one of Beijing’s trade complaints.
The Australian government announced on Friday afternoon that the Landbridge Group would be allowed to continue with its long-term lease over the Port of Darwin. China has long urged Australia to end the uncertainty over the outcome of a review ordered by Albanese shortly after the 2022 election.
The Australian government has said, however, that it would continue to monitor security arrangements around the Port of Darwin.
The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet said the review had found that there was “a robust regulatory system in place to manage risks to critical infrastructure, including the Port of Darwin”.
The review also found that “existing monitoring mechanisms are sufficient and will be ongoing” and “it was not necessary to vary or cancel the lease”.
“The government has accepted that advice,” the department’s statement said.
“Australians can have confidence that their safety will not be compromised, while ensuring that Australia remains a competitive destination for foreign investment.”
The review took in advice from a range of departments and security agencies including the Office of National Intelligence and Australia’s national security agency Asio.
The release of the Port of Darwin review follows news that the Australian government has been pressing China to remove punishing imposts on Australian wine similar to the recent breakthrough on barley. China has so far held its ground and wants movement on its own complaints.
Beijing has proposed a package deal in which it would reopen the door to Australian wine while demanding that Australia give ground on its own tariffs on three Chinese products.
These products – including wind towers – are part of a World Trade Organization dispute dating back to 2021, after Australia launched twin challenges against barley and wine tariffs.
While the Australian government has resisted the proposed package deal, seeing the complaints as separate matters, Australia’s Anti-Dumping Commission has now cleared the way for a partial breakthrough.
In a report published quietly on its website this week, the commission said it “proposes to recommend that the measures on wind towers exported to Australia from China expire on 16 April 2024”.
The commission said it was “not satisfied” that scrapping the tariffs would cause “the material injury that the measures are intended to prevent”.
China’s commerce ministry welcomed the proposed move, saying it was “conducive to deepening bilateral cooperation in the clean energy sector”.
The commerce ministry has previously argued extending the tariffs would harm Australia’s chances of meeting its new targets for renewable energy and emission reductions.
The timing of the recommendation is politically helpful, but government sources emphasised on Friday that the Anti-Dumping Commission operated independently and along its own review timeframes. The commission is part of the industry portfolio.
Albanese is expected to visit China in November, after formally accepting the invitation to travel to the country in September. This would coincide with the 50th anniversary of Gough Whitlam’s visit to China as prime minister, which occurred from 31 October to 4 November 1973.
Albanese has been working to “stabilise” the relationship with China, while insisting that the two countries would continue to “disagree where we must”.
The thaw has resulted in some progress, including the release last week of the detained Australian journalist Cheng Lei.
But the Labor government has repeatedly denied making policy concessions to Beijing. It has locked in support for the Aukus nuclear-powered submarine plan as part of US-led deterrence efforts, a policy that Beijing has repeatedly criticised.
During the election campaign, Albanese and his frontbenchers had also been highly critical of the Port of Darwin lease arrangements.
When asked on 26 April 2022 what a Labor government would do about the Port of Darwin, Albanese said it “should never have been sold to the Chinese”. He said that decision was “extraordinary” because it was a strategic port “and it is something that I’ve said we would examine if we were in government”.
But the Albanese government is now likely to defend leaving the lease in place on the basis that it is acting in line with fresh advice.
Opposition spokesperson for home affairs James Paterson said Albanese had “squibbed it” after previously calling the lease’s approval a “grave mistake” while Labor was in opposition.
“Despite promising to deal with it, now he can, he’s squibbed it, cynically dropped it on a Friday afternoon after parliament has risen and after his media appearance for the day,” Paterson said on social media.
“Australians deserve much more transparency when it comes to sensitive and important matters of national security. They deserve answers as to why the PM’s previous concern about this issue has now evaporated.”
The NT’s then Country Liberal party government granted a 99-year lease over the Port of Darwin to Landbridge Group in 2015.
A spokesperson for Landbridge said the company was “pleased that the federal government’s review has now been completed”.
“The outcomes reaffirm our position that there is no basis for security concerns given the Port is operated as a commercial enterprise in accordance with Australian Law and the Port transaction documents.
“Landbridge is hopeful that the outcome of this review, which is consistent with the findings of the reviews conducted in both 2015 and 2021, will now bring this matter to a close.”
Albanese will first travel to the United States next week in a trip expected to be dominated by implementing Aukus, along with exchanging views on China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and clean energy.
Source : The Guardian