Chinese owner of Australian port of Darwin dismisses security concerns

HONG KONG – Chinese operator of the Australian port of Darwin on Wednesday defended the company’s investment as “purely commercial”, dismissing security concerns that prompted Canberra this month to launch a review of its 99-year lease .

The lease agreement, worth A $ 506 million ($ 392.44 million), was finalized amid a drastic cooling in relations between Beijing and Canberra. The US military uses a naval base near the port and Washington has complained about the Chinese presence since Australia’s Northern Territory signed the lease with Landbridge Group in 2015.

“The lease is purely commercial, it has nothing to do with security,” said Vincent Lai, general manager of the Landbridge unit in Hong Kong, which holds the lease, at a press conference in the city.

Referring to talking about Landbridge as a security threat, he said: “These types of comments have seriously damaged business activity and the reputation of the company.” Lai warned, “If the government finally tears up the contract, the company will demand compensation.”

The already icy relationship between Australia and China has only cooled further in recent weeks. Canberra has canceled two Belt and Road Initiative agreements between Beijing and the state of Victoria. Beijing, for its part, has suspended bilateral economic dialogue and is continuing the trial of Australian writer Yang Hengjun for espionage.

Over the past year, China has taken steps to block or curb Australian imports of coal, cotton, barley, beef, lobsters, timber and wine. Beijing has indirectly linked its demarches to what it sees as hostile actions by Canberra, including a call to investigate the origins of COVID-19, the blocking of Huawei technologies from 5G phone networks, the end of the agreements of investment and the investigation of Chinese influence on its domestic policy.

Private company Landbridge has played a smaller role in pushing Chinese port investment overseas than state-owned Cosco Shipping and China Merchants Group, but in addition to Darwin, the company is running a billion dollar project. dollars to build a new deep-water container port near the Caribbean. entrance to the Panama Canal. The group’s website estimates Landbridge’s net assets at 30 billion yuan ($ 4.68 billion).

Lai said Landbridge was on the terms of its Darwin lease, investing A $ 20 million in the port since 2015, as promised. He said the port generated profits before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of A $ 10-20 million per year.

He did not directly address speculation about Landbridge’s ties to the Chinese government and military, simply saying that foreign governments had previously investigated his background. “What we notice is that they were all happy,” he said.

Separately, in an opinion piece in a newspaper published in Australia Wednesday, Mike Hughes, general manager of the group’s unit there, said: “Suggest that we could control the entry of foreign warships into Australian waters is laughable. we would block Australian or American ships entering Darwin. “

Additional reporting by Cora Zhu.

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