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Chinese company Landbridge rejects ‘myths and falsehoods’ over Darwin port lease

By on August 28, 2022 0

Company that holds Darwin Port’s 99-year lease says it has been the subject of unwarranted concern and hit back at ‘lies’, insisting the Chinese government has no influence over its operations .

The port – which is considered northern Australia’s most strategic maritime asset – was controversially leased to Chinese firm Landbridge in 2015.

Amid ongoing tensions between Australia and China, the federal government is reviewing the $506 million deal, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese reiterating some of his concerns last week.

“People would know that it was leased to a company very directly linked to the government of the People’s Republic of China,” Mr Albanese said.

But in an interview with the ABC, Landbridge said just because the company is owned by Chinese billionaire Ye Cheng doesn’t mean it’s subject to Chinese government control.

Terry O’Connor says safety concerns over Landbridge leasing the harbor are “unwarranted”.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

“There are a lot of myths and untruths around port leasing,” said Terry O’Connor, board member of Landbridge Port Operations.

“Choosing us for special treatment, I think is undeserved.”

Mr O’Connor said the company’s Shandong-based owner had “no input” into the day-to-day operations of the port, which are handled by Australian employees.

He also said Landbridge is working “in partnership” with the Northern Territory Government, which retains a 20% stake in the lease and is involved in discussions about the future development of the port.

“It does not belong to the Chinese government,” Mr O’Connor said.

“Darwin Harbor is owned by the Northern Territory Government.”

Landbridge questions the need for federal exams

The Darwin Port lease was the subject of a separate national security review commissioned by the former Morrison government last year.

The Department of Defense declined a freedom of information request to make its assessment public, despite media reports suggesting there were no adverse findings.

“From our perspective, I don’t see anything we were concerned about if it were to be published,” Mr O’Connor said, noting that Landbridge had not been consulted about the review or its findings.

Crew members of HMAS Parramatta wave goodbye as they depart Fort Hill Wharf in Darwin, Northern Territory.
Terry O’Connor says any potential move to recover the port’s lease would have significant international repercussions.(Department of Defense)

Mr O’Connor said under the terms of the lease, Defense and Australia’s allies would enjoy “priority berthing” at the port in the event of an emergency.

The scope of the Albanian government’s current review has not been disclosed, but Darwin-based Labor MP Luke Gosling suggested last week that he would look into potential “irregularities”.

Mr. O’Connor noted that the lease had already been subject to multiple assessments by national security agencies and investigations by the NT and federal legislatures.

“I don’t think there’s anything to see, to be honest.”

A sign of Darwin Harbour.
The port lease was the subject of a separate national security review last year.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

“The port is not for sale”, says Landbridge

The uncertainty created by the reviews has a direct impact on the business, O’Connor said.

“With this constant cloud over the longevity of the port, the constant investigations, what we’re seeing is a reluctance from financiers, or financiers asking about our ability to borrow and repay, based on our ability to manage the port and develop the port,” he said.

“We see it affecting our staff, even staff recruitment, especially at the senior level.”

A ship anchored at a dock in Darwin Harbor on a sunny day.
A national security review of the port commissioned by the former coalition government will not be made public.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Despite the ongoing controversy and tough economic conditions during the pandemic, Mr O’Connor said “the port is not for sale”.

“We are approached almost weekly, looking for an opportunity to invest in the port.

“Most of these investors are looking for a hard sell, thinking they can get it at a bargain price.

“The reality is that the port continues to grow in line with expectations.”

An aerial view of a ship anchored at a dock in Darwin Harbour.
Labor announced a new review of the circumstances of the lease following its election victory in May.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Mr O’Connor said any potential decision by the Federal Government to claw back the lease or force the Landbridge to divest would have significant international repercussions.

“I think it would undermine the confidence of overseas investors to actually commit to investing in Australia if that were to happen,” he said.

The ABC asked the Prime Minister’s Department and Cabinet for the terms of reference for the ongoing review, as well as its timeline, but only confirmed that a review was underway.