Ahead of China Trade Talks, Australia Closes Review of Key Port Lease

Port of Darwin
Courtesy Port of Darwin

Published Oct 22, 2023 1:03 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Australian government has said it will not cancel the controversial 99-year lease of Darwin Port to a Chinese operator. The announcement came after the government finalized a review into the circumstances of the lease of the port.

The Port of Darwin, located in Australia’s far-flung Northern Territory, has been a subject of contention since 2015 when the government leased it to China’s Landbridge Group. The transaction was even criticized by then-U.S President Barrack Obama. Landbridge is said to be linked to the Chinese Communist Party and its ownership of this strategic national asset was seen by many as a security threat to Australia. The port city of Darwin is in a key location for naval operations in the Indo-Pacific and also hosts a U.S. naval base with around 2500 marines.

After taking over as Australia’s prime minister in 2022, Anthony Albanese promised to review the Port of Darwin’s lease. However, the review determined that there is a robust regulatory system to manage risks that could affect critical infrastructure such as the Port of Darwin.

“Existing monitoring mechanisms are sufficient and will be ongoing. As a result, it was not necessary to cancel or vary the lease,” said the statement released by the Australian government.

These findings come ahead of Albanese’s visit to China from November 4-7. During the visit, Australia is keen to remove existing trade barriers with China, which have affected relationship between the two countries. China had imposed several trade sanctions on Australian products but has now rescinded bans on barley and coal. Australia has said it is working to secure a similar resolution on its wine trade with China. The Chinese government has also recently released imprisoned Australian journalist Cheng Lei.

“It is stretching credulity to breaking point to imagine that the timing of this announcement was a coincidence. This review of Landbridge Group’s Darwin Port Lease has taken nearly a year and half of the ministers were talking about its impending release months ago,” Benjamin Herscovitch of the Australian National University told ABC.

A previous 2021 report prepared under then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison also did not find sufficient national security grounds to overturn the Port of Darwin lease.