Defence Minister Peter Dutton has confirmed his department is reviewing the ownership by a Chinese company of a strategically important port used as a base for U.S. Marines.
The National Security Committee of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Cabinet had asked the defense department to advise on the ownership, Dutton said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald published late Sunday. Asked whether the government was mulling forced divestment, the minister said it would consider the national interests.
The move is likely to further increase tensions between Australia and its largest trading partner China, which have nosedived since the call by Morrison’s government a year ago for Beijing to allow independent investigators into Wuhan to probe the origins of the coronavirus.
The Northern Territory government’s deal in 2015 to sell a long-term lease to the Port of Darwin to Chinese firm Landbridge Group has been criticized by security experts. It came four years after then President Barack Obama secured a deal to base about 2,500 Marines in Darwin, which is on the doorstep of the Indo-Pacific.
China has slammed Australia’s decision last month to use new laws to cancel the Belt-and-Road agreements with the Victorian state government. There has been increasing speculation Morrison may use the laws, passed in December, to scrap long-term leases held by Chinese companies at the ports in Darwin and Newcastle.
“In relation to the Port of Darwin, if there is any advice that I receive from the Department of Defence or intelligence agencies that suggest there are national security risks there, then you would expect the government to take action on that,” Morrison said in a radio interview Friday.