The botched 99-year lease of Darwin's commercial port shows grand-strategic failures in national decision-making

The NT Government's flawed 99-year lease of Darwin's port to a Chinese company has been compounded by most political, official and public commentary missing the higher-order strategic issues actually involved.



Most public discussion and media commentary — and seemingly all the political and bureaucratic dissembling — about the 99-year lease of Darwin’s commercial port to Chinese interests continues to miss the point.

Contextually and practically this is not primarily a commercial, foreign investment review or other economic issue.

Nor does it ultimately concern potential barriers to defence force use of such commercial facilities, an increased risk of foreign espionage or sabotage, or whether the Chinese company, Landbridge, has Communist Party or military connections or not.

These second-order issues are all largely manageable although some will be difficult diplomatically and operationally.

Neither is the lease, strictly speaking, an alliance issue although the bungling about keeping the US informed is inexcusable — and highlights both the failure to think grand-strategically and consequent machinery-of-government failures as discussed below.

Given the very, very, long timeframe involved — and that the lease involves a powerful, regional and authoritarian country apparently unwilling to accept that the systems facilitating international relations must always be rules-based — surely the whole saga instead involves five key issues.

The first four of these concern the strategic security implications of implementing such a decision over such a long term.

The final, most important and over-arching issue is how such a decision — whether right or wrong — could be made in the inadequately considered manner in which it seems to have occurred and how to stop this type of stovepiped, rather than holistic, decision-making situation ever re-occurring.


Grand-strategic context

There has been an utter failure to examine the matter using a mature and holistic methodology, and in a grand-strategic context, that draw together all the Australian sovereign-freedom-of-action implications over the next century.

A period nearly half as long as Australian history since 1788 and one where strategic pressures will be at least fluid and perhaps turbulent.

For the first time since modern Australia was established in the late 18th Century our major trading partner is not also a major strategic ally. This poses obvious challenges in balancing national interests.

But what cannot be ignored or downplayed is that Australia’s strategic risk is particularly increased in the case of China compared to other foreign powers or sources of investment.

China has emerged as a potential and perhaps evident peer-strategic competitor to our long-time alliance partnerships and the stability these have enabled since World War II.

More importantly, more broadly and of even greater consequence over the very long term, under its current and seemingly entrenched undemocratic political system China is also ambivalent at best about supporting the rules-based international system by which Australia has thrived since 1945.

Moreover, China’s current authoritarian rule precludes the strategic stability safeguards of both true and tested democratic accountability domestically, and consequently of international accountability through committed support of an international system governed by rules achieved by peacefully negotiated and co-operative agreements.

After all, in grand-strategic terms, the last war fought between two democracies was in 1812-14.

Furthermore, this war was well before the modern rules-based international system matured considerably after the UN Charter came into force in 1945 — at the beginning of the 20-year window period when real democracies still constituted the majority of UN members.


Its not China the country but the nature of its authoritarian ruling regime that is the problem

It is not China as a country, but its current system of government that is the key problem.

The authoritarian nature of the PRC regime is what institutionalises increased risks of strategic adventurism until real democratisation and accountability occur. This remains the nub of the issue, especially as 99 years is a long period.

Particularly if future authoritarian governments in China seek to divert democratic pressures domestically by resort to belligerent nationalism or other abuses of strategic power and influence.

The long-term strategic security problem facing Australia and the region stem from how China is currently governed.

Particularly the strategic attitudes of its authoritarian rulers, and the narrow, non-transparent and seemingly disruptive and non-cooperative strategic culture this system of government encompasses and encourages.

Australia's strategic security over the long term is not risked by the concept or reality of China as a major power per se.

Nor by attitudes expressed by some Chinese people once their long record of authoritarian government, heavily censored media and ideologically-influenced education systems are factored in.

If China was instead democratically and stably governed it would be truly accountable to its people and the international community.

Its decision-making would be transparent and its intentions open, readily explicable and not the cause of widespread international concerns about strategic risk .

Such a China would be most unlikely to seek disruption of the rules-based international system to the extent and in the ways it is currently doing or being seen to do.

In such a case, a 99-year lease of multi-purpose Australian infrastructure would not constitute anywhere near the same strategic security consequences — and probably none at all.


Geo-strategic importance of Darwin facilities

In enduring geo-strategic terms Australia is a continent as well as a country. 

We also have the enduring geo-political advantage, in strategic security and domestic national unity terms, of being the only continent wholly the territory of one sovereign state.

In terms of the major strategic infrastructure necessary to exercise national sovereignty, key facilities in Darwin are essential for all Australians over the long term.

As the lease of Darwin's commercial port again shows, the implications of these strategic advantages are generally forgotten in day-to-day political and wider debate with the result they can be compromised without some (who really should know) realising it.

Preserving an appropriate degree of long-term national control over such key strategic infrastructure necessarily over-rides any short-term and sectional interests locally, especially where they arise from only parochially-focused political expediency in the Northern Territory.

Just as it does with appropriate national control concerning decisions about key strategic facilities elsewhere around Australia.

In geo-strategic terms, Darwin harbour, its surrounding area and its city provide the only location suitable for major naval use across northern Australia should this ever be necessary.

You have to go to Perth or Sydney in either direction to replicate this. It is also as much an oceanic access and maritime sovereignty issue as it is an infrastructural one.

To deny or downplay that increased use of Darwin may become necessary over the next 100 years is to deny both history and any inter-generational responsibility for the strategic security of our descendants.


Avoiding casus belli risk

Countries have only permanent interests, not permanent friends or indeed the opposite.

Over the next 99 years we should avoid the strategic risk of any overall dispute with China resulting in the lease forming any perceived or manipulated casus belli claim by China, particularly under its current type of regime.

The best and easiest way to preclude such significant risks — especially where the circumstances that might be involved cannot be foreseen in detail, or at all, and readily mitigated over such a long period — is to avoid them in the first place by not selling or leasing major strategic assets to such types of foreign interest.


Avoiding risk of exacerbating strategic tensions at a worst possible time

Even more particularly, by not leasing the port to Chinese interests we also preclude the risk of China deeming any future change to the leasehold conditions in a way that increases strategic tensions at a time, or in circumstances, when we would most need to reduce them.

Or where such leasing matters might enable increased Chinese strategic coercion at such a juncture.

Again the best and easiest way to preclude these risks is to avoid them in the first place.

Bureaucratic and political spin, concentrating on the lease not being strategically risky because Australian law permits defence force use of the port facilities in an emergency, ignores the likely serious and wider escalatory effects involved if this had to occur.

Particularly in a situation where Australia would not want to admit that increased strategic tensions constituted an emergency.

Including where we would seek to avoid such a step becoming a self-fulfilling consequence. 


Need to reform our strategic decision-making machinery

Whether the local decision to lease Darwin's commercial port for the next 99 years is a sound decision or not, how the decision occurred shows a major problem that must be rectified in detail.

Despite subsequent spin by the NT and federal governments, what has really occurred is that a state/territory-level government narrowly focused on short-term political expediency took a major decision — which seriously affects the future strategic security of the whole country for a century — clearly without realising the long-term, detailed and broader implications.

Although they are not alone here. Even more concerning is that the few federal departments and agencies consulted only looked at the lease in specific and narrow silos, not holistically or in any form of a grand-strategic context.

It is particularly surprising that the Department of Defence failed to recognise these contextual and conceptual failures and even more surprising that they apparently remain in denial about it.

The fact that such a lease was only considered, and could only be implemented, via legal and procedural loopholes in our national-interest protection mechanisms proves that major reform of our national security decision-making machinery is needed.


Restoring a grand-strategic approach to national decision-making

A proper grand-strategic approach, rather than one focused on managing issues more in a day-to-day “strategic policy” manner, is clearly needed.

Both to prevent further mistakes about foreign control of key national infrastructure and to improve the context and quality of public debate about such issues.

Given our short-term focused political and media cultures, entrenching such a grand-strategic and long-term focus will more often depend on strengthening the civil and military institutions of government, rather than on being able to somehow spread such thinking to most of those we elect to govern us at federal and lower levels.

Until 1958, for example, Australia maintained a Commonwealth War Book covering federal and state responsibilities for co-ordinated and detailed action to forestall strategic security contingencies or manage them if they occurred.

Until the mid 1980s ASIO put serious effort into its designated responsibility to maintain the nation’s vital assets register — covering those key parts of our national infrastructure essential to Australia’s security in the broadest sense.

Both mechanisms should be modernised and reinvigorated.

If the NT Government and various federal agencies had been required to check such a register, and then consult in detail accordingly, then our current public policy and diplomatic dilemma over Chinese investment in Darwin’s port would not have arisen.

Finally, while the National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSCC) now generally functions well, at least for shorter-term matters, the supporting mechanisms remain inadequate in focus, co-ordination and whole-of-government composition.

The lease surely also proves that the Secretaries Committee on National Security (SCONS) is unable to provide the whole-of-government co-ordination that was generally achieved by the former inter-departmental defence committee and its supporting mechanisms until the early 1970s.

As the Australia Defence Association has long argued, the NSCC should be supported by a National Security Council comprising whole-of-nation participation by all relevant governmental agencies (with the states and territories represented as required), but with all the Council’s staff being seconded to avoid empire building and to reinforce its purely co-ordination, consultation and advisory roles.

This would also allow a reconstitution of the strategic-level intelligence staff function not really undertaken by an Office of National Assessments focused only on intelligence analysis, and rebuilding of a (grand-strategic) futures-planning function within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


* A shorter version of this comment was published by ASPI on 23 November 2015 at : 

See also ABC Darwin's "Curious Darwin", 12 March 2019 at:


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