Landbridge’s ownership of Darwin Port under review

The Australian federal government has requested a review of the long-term lease of the Port of Darwin to China’s Landbridge Group, in light of critical infra laws passed in 2018.

Chinese energy and infrastructure company Landbridge Group’s ownership of the Port of Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territory (NT), may be in jeopardy, as the country’s Department of Defence undertakes a review of the lease.

Defence minister Peter Dutton is reported to have confirmed that the Australian federal government has tasked his department with a review of the NT government’s 99-year, A$506 million ($392 million; €325 million) lease of the port to Landbridge in 2015.

Dutton’s confirmation that a review is underway follows comments made by Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week in relation to the national security implications – within the context of critical infrastructure laws which came into effect in 2018 – of the long-term lease of the port to the Chinese-owned company.

“If there is any advice that I receive from the Department of Defence or intelligence agencies that suggest that there are national security risks, then you’d expect the government to take action on that, and that would be right,” Morrison said.

He added the 2015 lease had been actioned by the NT government without any involvement by the federal government at the time.

“Under the law as it was back then, states and territories could privatise those assets and they didn’t have to go to the federal government,” Morrison said.

Security concerns among members of the federal opposition and national security experts about foreign ownership of the port have been ongoing since the deal passed in 2015. They partly stem from Darwin’s role in hosting major navy and multi-national exercises and operations, as well as being a base for the US, as it seeks to keep Chinese expansion in the region in check.

In a statement, Mike Hughes, vice-president for Landbridge in Australia, said: “Landbridge acquired the lease to Darwin Port in good faith following a transparent process in 2015. Our involvement was reviewed by both the Foreign Investment Review Board and the Department of Defence at the time and it has been subject to a Senate inquiry.

“We are aware of reports of a new review to be conducted by the Department of Defence and are willing to participate in this review as required.”

The Department of Defence declined to comment on a completion date for the review.

Soon after being awarded the right to operate the Port of Darwin, Landbridge completed a $900 million deal to develop and operate a new port on Panama’s Margarita Island.