News Michael Pascoe: Reds under the wharf and other beat-ups

Michael Pascoe: Reds under the wharf and other beat-ups

The federal government is continuing to escalate its battle with China for zero gain, Michael Pascoe says.
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The Morrison government’s latest stunt – tearing up Victorian government “deals” with China that weren’t really deals – achieved its aims of near-universal positive media coverage.

They provided a deflection from the government’s more obvious recent failures, wedging the Labor Party into following suit and perhaps embarrassing Daniel Andrews a fraction, that bit pushed along with an inspired follow-up report that the “deals” had been all the Premier’s “closely-guarded” work.

Too bad about further escalating the battle we’re losing with our most important economic partner for zero gain.

The best excuse Sunday’s Insiders panel could come up with was that it was a “propaganda” measure. Such is Australian diplomacy these days.

As a follow up to her blunder of undiplomatically leading the charge for an international inquiry into the pandemic’s origin, Marise Payne adds to her claim to be the Foreign Minister who has done the most damage to Australia’s interests.

And never mind that the Victorian “deals” were a practically meaningless memorandum of understanding and a “framework” of roughly equal substance.

The pack of China hawks dominating media coverage care little for such details.

Sooled on the Belt and Road stunt, there’s been a predictable and painfully ignorant chorus calling for the government to scrap the Northern Territory’s lease of the Darwin port to a Chinese company, Landbridge.

On Thursday Liberal backbencher Dave Sharma was telling Sky News the 2015 Darwin deal “needs some further scrutiny”.

While it’s hard to believe, Mr Sharma allegedly had a spell in our diplomatic corps before politics.

The ABC’s Insiders panel stirred the Darwin pot, along with Defence Minister Peter Dutton giving it a nudge while carefully leaving it as a matter for Minister Payne.

That’s a change from him having no concerns about the lease in 2015 when he was opening a new Border Force berthing facility in Darwin.

Back then, Mr Dutton and the rest of the government were fully briefed by our security and defence chiefs that concerns about the port lease were a ridiculous beat-up by the usual suspects who apparently had no idea what they were talking about.

But never let facts get in the way of a scary China story – the “Reds under the wharf!” brigade were given and are still given uncritical coverage by credulous media. What’s more, their nonsense seems to live on in popular and media memory.

Professor James Laurenceson, director of the UTS Australia-China Relations Institute, summarised the Senate estimates destruction of the Sino fantasies in a 2018 paper. (If you want the full recount of who made fools of themselves, the relevant chapter starts on page 65 – they are familiar names for China hawk watchers.)

In the Professor’s own words:

If anyone would be expected to weigh seriously concerns about the security implications of the Darwin Port deal, it would be the heads of the Department of Defence, ASIO and the ADF. Yet all three rejected suggestions that Landbridge operating Darwin Port could facilitate spying.

At the Senate estimates hearing on October 21, 2015 the chief of the ADF, Mark Binskin said, ‘If [ship] movements are the issue, I can sit at the fish and chip shop on the wharf at the moment in Darwin and watch ships come and go, regardless of who owns it’.

In comments on November 19, 2015, secretary of Defence Dennis Richardson said that he supported Binskin’s fish and chip shop assessment and added, ‘It’s as though people have never heard of overhead imagery’.

When challenged at estimates about Uhlmann’s report (Chris Uhlmann, then ABC reporter, now Channel 9) that concerns were being expressed at the ‘highest levels of the ADF’, Secretary Richardson said that his experience had shown that, ‘anyone who spoke to the media … was immediately described as a senior diplomat, even if they were quite a junior person’. In any case, ‘the most senior people in the ADF are the Chief of the Defence Force], the Vice Chief of the Defence Force and the services chiefs, and I am not aware of any concerns’.

On November 19, 2015 Secretary Richardson told The Australian that Defence and ASIO had looked ‘very carefully’ at the Darwin Port deal. Both organisations were ‘at one’ that Landbridge’s bid ‘was not an investment that should be opposed on defence and security grounds’.

He described spy claims as ‘amateur hour’ and that ‘when you examine them, melt like butter sitting on a car bonnet on a hot day’.

He also put on the record that any claim that Defence had not exercised due diligence was ‘based upon ignorance not on fact’.

Secretary Richardson’s testimony followed Jennings (Peter Jennings, Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director) at the Senate inquiry’s public hearings on December 15, 2015. He said Jennings’ specific claim that the Chinese could monitor the signals that ships were emitting was ‘absurd’ because any naval vessel entering a commercial port would turn them off as standard operating procedure.

What about the ‘strategic’ concerns associated with the Darwin Port lease? The Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security’s Bateman, also a former Royal Australian Navy Commodore, has noted that ports are a highly regulated industry.

Owning the lease to operate a port means being subject to this regulation, not escaping it. As with any lease, the Darwin Port one came with conditions. If lease conditions are breached, the port’s owner, the Northern Territory government, is entitled to step in …

Yet another layer of protection is given by the Department of Defence having ‘step-in rights’.

At Senate Estimates on October 21, 2015, Secretary Richardson cut short Senator Lambie’s musings about whether ‘the Chinese’ could close down the port, interjecting, ‘It would be illegal…we have some overriding powers under the Defence Act. So that is not a possibility’.

Secretary Richardson described Wade’s claims (Geoff Wade, briefly an ANU visiting fellow, now a Parliamentary Library researcher) that the north of Australia would be opened up to the PLA Navy as ‘alarmist nonsense’ and that it was ‘without foundation in any way’.

He said, ‘Anyone who knows the ABC knows it is not the gift of the operator of a port to invite foreign naval vessels to visit’. Naval vessels require diplomatic clearance, provided in Australia’s case by the Department of Defence. The idea that Chinese company Landbridge could provide this clearance was ‘simply absurd’ and ‘not factually based’.

If Landbridge does run into financial trouble, Jennings’ claims that Darwin Port could fall into the hands of the Chinese government defies basic facts. The land and infrastructure at Darwin Port is owned by the Northern Territory government and accordingly, cannot be mortgaged or put up for sale by Landbridge. If Landbridge defaulted on its lease to operate the port, the terms of the lease specify that its operation would return to the Northern Territory, or be resold to a new buyer who would have to satisfy the Northern Territory government, and if they were from overseas, the Foreign Investment Review Board.

That a six-year old lease deal continues to bubble as a media issue says more about the quality of reporting on relations with China than a minor port’s strategic significance.

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