17 November 2015
by Laura Tingle
US not consulted over Port of Darwin Chinese deal
Australia did not consult the United States about a decision to allow a Chinese company with links to the People's Liberation Army to lease the Port of Darwin for 99 years, intelligence sources say.
US officials only heard about the deal last month as they were returning from the annual Australia-US consultations on foreign affairs and defence. Darwin has become an important staging post for US Marine deployments in the region in the past three years.
The revelations come amid growing controversy about the deal and indications that the lease was not subject to proper foreign investment scrutiny.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has asked Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for an urgent briefing on the process that allowed the port lease to be approved, saying he was "seeking reassurances regarding the due diligence analysis that has been done on the national security risks" of the port deal.
"Additionally, from public reporting of the deal it is unclear whether a full Foreign Investment Review Board process was undertaken to assess the impact of the lease arrangement",
"I ask for your clarification about what FIRB process was undertaken in this instance," Mr Shorten said.
It was reported last week that the bid for the port by the Landbridge Group appeared to have slipped through the net of the Foreign Investment Review Board.
This was confirmed by Treasurer Scott Morrison on Friday who said the "rules Labor had in place and that the shadow treasurer presided over did not permit [the port] transaction to come under FIRB's review".
Mr Morrison made the comments as he signalled the government was looking to strengthen protections of strategic national assets and critical infrastructure.
"The government is acutely aware of the sensitivities regarding foreign investment in strategic national assets and critical infrastructure,"
"The government is assessing options to strengthen the federal government's ability to protect the national interest in these cases and we will have more to say on this issue in the future."
However, sources do not believe it is possible for the federal government to overturn the deal between the Northern Territory and Landbridge.
The furore over the transaction has provoked behind-the-scenes recriminations between Darwin and Canberra and within the federal government. It is also understood to have provoked questions from Washington.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute revealed last week that the company that has won the Port of Darwin lease, Landbridge, had strong links with the People's Liberation Army.
Landbridge released a statement on Friday saying the claims were "inaccurate and wrong".
A spokesman for Defence Minister Senator Marise Payne said on Monday night:
"Defence does not have security concerns about the lease of the Port of Darwin to Chinese interests".
"Defence does not comment on behalf of the United States government. US access to the port facilities in Darwin included in the lease will continue on commercial arrangements, as it is the case at other ports around Australia."