By Linda Jakobson
This is a grave assertion. One certainly hopes the health of the alliance is robust enough to withstand a Chinese company leasing Australia’s smallest port.
I was spurred to probe this issue as the founder of China Matters, a public policy initiative with explicit goals: to inject nuance into discussions in Australia about China and to advance sound policy.
First, the nuance. The concerns of critics of the Landbridge deal have focused mainly on two issues: the armed militia established within Landbridge and the links to the Chinese Communist Party of the company’s wealthy owner, Ye Cheng. To add expert opinion to my own understanding of Chinese society I communicated with three former US intelligence officers with a China background and two Chinese security specialists.
The Landbridge Group does indeed have a militia unit. So does every large enterprise, university, hospital — virtually every sizeable organisation in China, numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
In China domestic security is provided by the People’s Armed Police and armed militia. They are separate paramilitary forces and both under the dual command of the Ministry of Public Security and the Central Military Commission.
However, the mission of the armed militia is different from the PAP and in Landbridge’s case it is to provide basic security for the enterprise’s facilities in China.
Commonly, the armed militia of an enterprise also contributes to some aspect of general public security; for example, firefighting in the local area.
Furthermore, by establishing an armed militia, an enterprise shows social responsibility because it provides jobs for unemployed youth and demobilised People’s Liberation Army soldiers.
As for Ye, he does indeed have connections to senior officials of the Communist Party. He is a member of the 12th National Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory political body comprising prominent citizens such as successful businessmen.
Each enterprise in China — everyone, for that matter, in an authoritarian one-party state — is expected to bear in mind the party-state’s interests. Stating that the existence of an armed militia within the enterprise and ownership by a person with connections to the Communist Party are criteria for not allowing investment into Australia means Australia should not allow any investment from China. The existence of armed militias and connections to the party are integral to the way society functions in China.
It is therefore a gigantic leap to assert, after a mention of Landbridge’s “links to the People’s Liberation Army”, that the Darwin deal is an effort by China to weaken the Australian alliance with the US and there must be significant security concerns about the deal.
To quote one of my American interlocutors, “there are a lot of things to be concerned about regarding the PLA, but from what I’ve read, this is not one of them”.
Second, to the goal of advancing sound policy. Each major investment case should be assessed individually and on its own merits and risks. This is precisely what the federal government has done with regard to Landbridge.
Defence Department secretary Dennis Richardson has said the lengthy and careful review by Defence included an evaluation from the Australian Signals Directorate. His conclusion: “No part of Defence had a concern from a security perspective in relation to the sale.” In the absence of contravening evidence, what more can one ask for?
Last, to the assertion that the Landbridge deal is an issue Canberra should have consulted Washington about because of the seasonal stationing of US marines in Darwin: it is this type of statement that weakens Australia’s credibility as a sovereign nation.
Besides, surely sensitive material intended for use by US marines or the Australian Defence Force is not transported via a commercial port.
The controversy surrounding the Landbridge deal highlights the challenge of dealing with a country such as China that is lacking in transparency and accountability.
The security challenges China may pose for Australia must be acknowledged. But understanding how China functions is paramount to ensuring assertions are credible.
Paranoia about anything related to the PLA is not in Australia’s interests. Perspective is imperative, based on facts. Uncertainty breeds fearmongering.
The federal government needs not only to strengthen its efforts to understand the complex links of the Chinese party-state; it also must devote more effort to bringing into the public arena a higher degree of comprehension of the way China functions.
In that regard a worthwhile suggestion was made by one of the Landbridge deal’s critics, Geoff Wade, about the need for a public database on Chinese companies investing in Australia. The more facts we have about patronage networks the better we can make informed decisions.
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