The Port of Darwin lease with a Chinese company could be the next target of Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, after tearing up the state of Victoria's Belt and Road contract with China, the country's defense minister Peter Dutton suggested on Sunday.
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Illustration: Tang Tengfei/GT

Noting that the port lease was one of the thousands of cases Payne was examining, he said that “I think it is a question for Marise to look at these individual cases. If it is not in our national interests then obviously she will act.”

Even though Dutton did not directly call for a scrap of the lease deal, his remarks were interpreted by Australian media outlets as sending a signal that the Port of Darwin lease with the Chinese company is in danger.

In response, a spokesperson from China’s Foreign Ministry on Monday expressed hope that Australia could treat China-Australia economic cooperation fairly and stop sabotaging normal business interactions.

While encouraging Chinese enterprises to conduct overseas investment and cooperation in accordance with market principles and international rules and on the basis of abiding by local laws, the Chinese government will resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese enterprises investing and operating abroad.

The Northern Territory Government inked a 99-year lease for the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company named Landbridge Group in 2015. If the Morrison government intended to go political and interfere with the port project the Chinese company has been running for years, it would mark a sad and new low in bilateral relations, resulting from a clear escalation of Canberra’s deliberate provocation against Chinese companies.

It is no secret that the animosity that Canberra holds towards China is so strong that it has already blocked dozens of investment deals with Chinese companies in recent years. In August 2020, Chinese dairy behemoth Mengniu Dairy was forced to ditch a A$600 million acquisition deal to acquire Australian dairy brand Lion-Dairy & Drinks after Canberra said the business deal was “not in the national interest” of Australia.

If Australia continues to intentionally escalate its hostility by undermining existing cooperative projects involving Chinese companies, it will hurt Chinese investors, but Australian businesses would also suffer greatly.

Moreover, Chinese companies that have been abiding by local laws and contributing to the Australian economy should defend their lawful rights by resorting to laws and demand fair compensation, if they were forced to terminate operation due to political reasons.

In the case of the Port of Darwin lease, Landbridge has made long-term investment plans for the port, including but not limited to an initial $35 million of new investment in the first five years of its lease.

Against the backdrop of the growing anti-China sentiment in Canberra, there are plenty of reasons for us to warn Chinese business entities against the growing uncertainty in Australia. They should heighten their alert there.

Precautions are needed for Chinese companies to seek legal recourse to defend their rights and interests. Meanwhile, relevant Chinese authorities should also offer legal assistance to help Chinese businesses, while a response in kind should also be considered.

Last month, 14 of our dairy farms in Maine, as well as dozens of dairy farms across northern New England, got an unexpected and disappointing notice from Danone of North America saying that they were discontinuing their contracts with our organic dairy farmers in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and elsewhere.

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