Australia as a beggar nation: How the Country Liberal Party made the Port of Darwin a Geo-strategic requisite for China
By Dr Strobe Driver, recipient of Taiwan Fellowship 2018, MOFA, Taiwan, ROC, and adjunct researcher at Federation University
The analysis of Australia’s leasing of the Port of Darwin (PofD) to a Chinese company (Landbridge Industry Australia) in 2017—ABC News ‘Why did the Northern Territory lease the Darwin Port to China, and at what risk?’—and the serious future repercussions this will have to Australia’s security, is finally coming to the fore. Whilst being mindful of Andrew Robb’s recent statement that there is an ‘anti-China’ sentiment that exists within Australia, the underlying problem beyond the leasing is that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to rise. The process of what constitutes a ‘rise’ has at its core the acquisition of international assets that contribute to the fiscal base of the owner’s home country cum domestic environment. The PRC will want the asset to keep generating income; and will do all it can to keep this strong fiscal base.
There is no surprise in the PRC pursuing this strategy as from a historical aspect, the act of gaining and keeping assets can be observed in the British dominance of India (circa-1612 – 1947) which contributed enormously to the tax-base of Britain; the United States of America (US) and its control over the Central Americas in the 1960s for the direct benefit of American companies; and Japan in its acquisition of American business assets in the 1980s—most notably in 1989, the Rockefeller Centre (Sony) and Columbia Studios (Mitsubishi). The list of acquisitions and the ways in which they were gained is long and involves far too many countries for inclusion here, suffice to state China in the twenty-first century, like Britain and the US before it, will have the capacity in the near future to use threat-of-force or direct force to maintain a hold over its assets. This factor can now be extrapolated upon.
Expansionism: How mercantilism and threat-of-force rule
With the time span of the abovementioned cases crossing from the early-seventeenth through to the early twenty-first centuries emphasises the practice of gaining assets becoming firmly ensconced in the capitalist-driven business world. Certainly, there is no immediate and substantial problem with this practice taking place from the perspective of international trade, especially in the case of China in the twenty-first century ‘globalised’ world, where it is commonplace to do ‘borderless’ business. Whether the companies that indulge in the mercantilism alluded to are concerned enough about the welfare of the host country and therefore, contribute the correct amount of taxes and other ‘moral contracts’ within the host society are moot points and need not be debated here. To be sure, there are many other accompanying components that allow a country to expand. This has been true of Spain, France, Britain, the US and many others. The assisting of expansionism for a country comprises of, but is not limited to, a strong and disciplined military, stable currency, domestic harmony and well-being, gross domestic product growth, a good (relatively constant) standard of living, a dutiful government sector, rising education standards, and a law-abiding and ordered society.
The problem for the world, in general, has been, when all of the abovementioned attributes coalesce within a country there is a tendency to create expansionist policies. This can be due to ‘irredentism,’ the seeking of ‘righting past wrongs,’ outright revenge, the protection of an asset-beyond one’s own borders, the setting up of geo-strategic platforms and a myriad of other reasons. Spain, in the fifteenth century, expanded as far as the South Americas to claim territory and its expansionist tendencies would further usher in what would become known as, the ‘Vasco da Gama era.’ This era reflected on the achievements of the Portuguese explorer da Gama and his feats of navigation and science (circa-1500). For all intent and purpose this would signify the power of the West for the following 500 (plus) years and as such the West—essentially Western Europe, Britain, and parts of the Mediterranean—would expand a geographic power-base and conquer the world. The US would follow circa-mid-1800s with its demand that Japan ‘open up’ to trade with the West or be fired upon by Commodore Perry and his ‘black ships’ (1853 – 1854), and moreover, the US would have numerous incursions into the lands of others. The US’ international zenith of power would take place in the post-World War Two years (WWII). For the West, expansionism would take place through colonialism, mercantilism, subjugation through direct military force and political manipulation or a combination of all. A subjugated territory was considered to be ‘owned’ by the invader and hence, an inherent right of protection existed and the conquered land would be viewed through a prism of being a protectorate, a suzerain state, or come under the more subjective mantle of being part of a ‘motherland.’ All would allow the territory to become part of the geo-strategic remit of the claimant. The claimant’s inherent right to defend ‘their’ asset within the host-country would evolve to an inculcated norm within the claimant’s society—as happened recently with the Russian Federation and Crimea—and the claim is often, and from a historical perspective, reinforced with military action. The relevance here is, countries view their ‘rights’ and ownership as intermingled. At this point, the PRC’s ownership of the PofD and the repercussions this will have for Australia as the A-P (Asia-Pacific) becomes more fractious, can now be examined.
The trouble to come and the Country Liberal Party
What the Country Liberal Party (CLP) of the Northern Territory—long having viewed itself as the “natural ruling party of the Territory”—has accomplished by leasing a significant and most strategic asset, is to place the PofD firmly on the list of having to be ‘protected’ by the lease-owners government. This would be a nominal part of China’s overall foreign policy within the Asia-Pacific (A-P); and would be part of its normal foreign commitments; and exigencies. Many countries have used the annexing of an asset that it controls, or utilizes it as part of a set of control factors, under the guise of subjective policies—regional stability; and national importance are two such factors. There have been varying degrees of violence and politico-manipulation in many instances of claiming: Britain adopted this approach in the counter-strike against Argentina’s attempt to take back the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas (1982), the US and the invasion of Granada (1983), China’s reclaiming of Hong Kong (1997), and the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank/East Jerusalem (1967), is to name only several nation-states that have implemented their ‘claim’ strategies for ongoing gain.
Notwithstanding the abovementioned, all conflicts have a level of national protection as a core component of policy, although it is often accompanied by other imperatives. Therefore, and based on history China will view the PofD as an asset that must be protected and moreover, the potential for it to be elevated to a pillar of the PRC’s regional preponderance is a feasible proposition. Based on history there is no reason why this will not happen and when it does the PofD will by definition, become part of the PRC’s A-P geo-strategic fiat. The emphasis being made here is, as China continues on its current pathway of building a strong ‘blue water navy,’ the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and a sophisticated air force—the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)—it will have gained the capacity to strike at the PofD. Of equal importance and much more likely, however, is a threat-of-force, one that is able to be backed up by direct force, will be made and it will entail intimidating any ship entering, or exiting the port. The ‘hard power’ that will be available to China and its allies (as it should be assumed China will have other dependable and allied A-P actors), will be centred on disrupting ease-of-access to the port without engaging in a ‘kinetic exchange’ or a ‘shooting war.’ The strategy—which has been utilized and applied by the West against Iraq and Iran in the Strait of Hurmuz standoffs (1988 and 2011 respectively)—is extremely effective as it immediately places the most powerful actor in a position of dominance and subsequently forces the less-powerful actor into a position of enforced negotiation. The strategy and its efficacy has been observed by China and moreover, has been part of the PLAN’s ‘real world’ experience with the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s maritime force in actions off the Somalia coast (2008), which consisted of shipping-lane protection; and the curtailing of pirate activities. This was the first time the PLAN conducted such activities and therefore, is well aware of the advantages a blockade can bring to an effective overall strategy. To be certain, when the PLAN exercises a similar initiative toward Australia it will be resolute and it will be of polygonal intent: establishing China’s regional pro-activeness; changing the ‘strategic equation’ within the A-P; place fiscal-pressure on the Australian economy; test the reaction time of the Australian military, and downwardly-moderate the Australia-US alliance. When (rather than if), the PofD becomes a strategic necessity for the PLAN to safeguard China’s asset and as per the Western ‘model’ of security and when this will happen and the crisis it will introduce into Australia can now be addressed.
Challenges for Australia
Importantly, China will exercise all of the mechanisms of suasion at its disposal and whether this will result in a kinetic, force-on-force exchange is moot and need not be debated here, as it is the problematics that Australians will face when China decides to pressure Australia’s geographic and nautical territory that is of interest here. First of all, however, a timeline of what could happen needs some understanding. China since circa-1995 has embarked on a grand plan of irredentism and expansionism—often referred to as pax-Sino. Two major undertakings have signalled its future intent: the ‘Nine-Dash’ line (NDL); and the ‘Belt and Road initiative’ (BRI). To be sure, both have been secured regardless of US and intra-Asian debate and protest; and negative commentary within the United Nations (UN). Notwithstanding this, China has continued with its programme of expansionism and has not allowed peripheral debate to influence its agenda. This has allowed Australia some diplomatic and military ‘breathing space’ in terms of not being directly threatened per se. War forecasting, however, is an inexact science and is dependent on many factors and moreover, relies on a set of identifiable parameters to take place which usually consist of demands, inducement, intimidation and finally, ‘coercion.’ This has already happened in greater or lesser degrees in the PRC’s interactions with Vietnam and the Philippines so far however, kinetic exchanges has only consisted of minor skirmishes. The intent of China will not change and over time it will force Australia into the forefront of its regional endeavours.
The PRC will use the PofD to expand upon its notions of control and this will intensify as it continues to rise and it will use the feint of direct power—the presence of ‘capital ships’—in order to cluster the majority of Australian military forces in the north of Australia. Strategists’ understand the advantages and limitations of an armed force and of when and where, to feint and moreover, China understands the Australian military can only holdout for a week, before becoming ‘impotent.’ The reason China will use threat-of-force is because of an eminently manageable tactic for a powerful actor, however, it undermines the capabilities of the less-powerful actor by overstretching its capabilities. More importantly, the tactic produces additional and complex domestic problems for the threatened actor, and this will be the case for Australia.
Some of the issues Australia would face as a feint and a threat-of-force takes place to comprise but not limited to, Australia having near-zero civilian- and military-reserve fuel and this problem would instantly come to the fore. Severe fuel rationing and food distribution would become immediately and immensely problematic—as it did for Japan (an island nation-state) during World War Two. Another two major problems would be a mass exodus of the population south from Darwin and this would create an overwhelming set of logistical, societal and order problems, which in turn would be compounded by a more general and frantic exodus of people from Australia. People who are able to financially and status able (dual citizenship) to leave will do so, as there is evidence when a country comes under threat a significant portion of their population exits—Taiwan (1996) is one example of such an occurrence. Notwithstanding the aforementioned, the Australian import- and export-driven economy would essentially collapse under the strain of these problems; and Australia would be forced into re-negotiating the PofD by the PRC which would inevitably be used to their strategic and tactical advantage. An obvious strategic demand by the PRC would be the non-entry of US Navy ships to the PofD and the tactic would be to test Australia’s resolve; place a significant (if not catastrophic) stressor on the Australia-US alliance; and ultimately, force defence agreements to be moderated. The question of ‘why and when’ will this take place can now be addressed.
Whilst the inexact science of war-forecasting has been alluded to, there are some components that indicate that China is to date, not able to pursue its agenda of being a major actor in the A-P to the fullest extent. The reasons for this are many however, a nation-state’s progress is a dynamic and as setbacks are overcome—the US loss of the Vietnam War (1973), and the (then) Soviet Union’s loss of Afghanistan (1989) are two cases in point—powerful actors soon recover and begin another phase of engagements. Notwithstanding the aforementioned, the fact remains ‘rising nation-states’ are keen to ‘stamp their authority’ on nautical-, air- and ground-territories. At the present time there are moderations to China’s rise and they comprise but are not limited to, the retrocession of Taiwan not having taken place; the PLAN and PLAAF are not at full operational capacity; the NDL and BRI are and remain works-in-progress; China’s northwest province remains unstable; China-Russia relations (especially, with regard to energy security for China) are at times capricious; and China has not established whether the US will remain involved in the A-P to the extent it was in the twentieth century. All issues whilst being significant are a dynamic, and will need to be worked through over time although once China has established its status in the region, whether it be unipolar, or be a ‘pole’ in a multi-polar bloc, the situation for Australia will from a politico-perspective, intensify due to the vulnerability the lease has created in Australia.
Australia’s problems will be compounded by its hold on the past and of considering the A-P to be its ‘patch,’ and whilst this is grounded in a history of dominance in the region, it remains an untenable ‘reach’ for Australia in a new and different A-P. Australia is simply unable to defend its ‘patch’ against a major actor such as the PRC. Due to its newfound and increasing status, China will exercise greater control over the A-P and thus, the protection of its assets will be by necessity, leveraged. In order to uphold the tenet or protection threat-of-force and if necessary, direct force will be used. Pre-military actions by China will comprise politico-strategies such as elevating its involvement in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; and exercising its rights more robustly in the UN, and particularly as part of the UN Permanent Five, will become more evident over time however there will be a deeper cause and intent associated with these actions as they will signal the PRC’s intent to exercise military suasion if need be. The threat of direct force will only be used when China’s role in the A-P becomes more defined; and the desire to become a more forthright actor in the region is actively pursued. As stipulated, the protection of assets and the influences therein, will come to the fore and actions associated with the PofD will signal the PRC’s policies toward its rights; and ambitions.
The CLP leasing the PofD will allow the PRC to enact a claim on its asset, a claim that would not have existed had the lease not been entered into, and this, in turn, will allow the PRC to place restrictions on the port and the surrounding strategic ‘space,’ which must place Australia’s negotiation platform in a weakened position. To think that Australia will not have to negotiate with such a powerful actor is an absurd and fanciful notion, as the pressures placed on the Australian economy — and military — will be too great. Further exacerbating the problem of defending the PofD will be the ‘Attack Class’ submarines having not being assimilated; the Joint Strike Fighter not being capable of repelling the PLAN and PLAAF; and of Australians historic, albeit misguided, belief, that the US will come to its aid. Which brings the question, when will all of the aforementioned happen?
From the mid-2030s a dire time for Australia will have been created as China will have become a more military robust; and a politico-sophisticated nation-state. Notwithstanding this evolvement, the PofD will be a core underpinning for China’s regional military maneuverings, and Australians will have the CLP to ‘thank’ for creating a calamitous and ominous situation. Unless Australia’s foreign policy attitudes toward the PRC change and decisions are made to mitigate the threat the PRC poses Australia will be drawn into a conflict. Australia must embrace the fact that the PRC will increasingly become a major politico – and military – actor in the A-P, albeit one that has been offered a disproportionate advantage by the CLP. China, like powerful actors before it, will be prepared to use direct force in order to attain; and sustain its status. The CLP has produced a problem that will malign Australia far into the future, on many levels, and will indubitably produce a crisis Australia has not experienced since the WWII (1942) bombing of Darwin by the Japanese Imperial Air Force; and the occupation of New Guinea by the Japanese Imperial Army in the same year. Both caught Australia unprepared and created panic. The CLP has consigned Australia to this future again by a massive and collective act of stupidity.
 Christopher Walsh. ‘Why did the Northern Territory lease the Darwin Port to China, and at what risk?’ ABCNews. 12 Mar, 2019. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-03-12/why-did-northern-territory-sell-darwin-port-to-china-what-risk/10755720
 ABC Radio AM. ‘Robb slams Turnbull, Joyce and security agencies over anti-China sentiment.’ Interviewer: Eliza Borrello. https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/am/robb-slams-turnbull-joyce-security-agencies-anti-china-sentiment/10891480
 ‘Irredentism,’ or ‘irredentist policies’ comprise, ‘a party in any country advocating the acquisition of some region included in another country by reason of cultural, historical, ethnic, racial, or other ties.’ See: ‘irredentism,’ Dictionary.com. Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition,. HarperCollins Publishers, 2018. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/irredentism
 See: ‘Commodore Perry and Japan (1853 – 1854).’ Asia for Educators. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/japan_1750_perry.htm
 ‘Why did the Northern Territory lease the Darwin Port to China, and at what risk?’ ABCNews.
 A ‘blue water navy’ consists of having a navy which is able to venture into open ocean or the high seas, as opposed to littoral waters. A navy of this kind is according to Kirtz able to defend against ‘open ocean naval threats … and [is consistent with] gaining command of the sea.’ See: James Kirtz. ‘Introduction.’ Naval Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Operations. Stability from the sea. Edited by James Wirtz and Jeffrey Larsen. Oxon: Routledge, 2009, 1.
 ‘Hard power’ centres on military and economic power … .’ See: Joseph Nye. ‘Soft Power and European-American Economic Affairs.’ Hard Power, Soft Power and the Future of Transatlantic Relations. Edited by Thomas Ilgen. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2006, 26.
 There is some relevance in noting how the US changed the ‘strategic equation’ of the Middle East by initiating Gulf War II (2003) and it is, ‘For the Bush administration, Iraq was an inviting target for pre-emption not because it was an immediate threat but because it was thought to be a prospective menace that was incapable of successfully defending itself against a U.S. invasion. For an administration that was determined to change the strategic equation of the Middle East and make Saddam an object lesson to [Weapons of Mass Destruction] proliferators, Iraq was not a danger to avoid but a strategic opportunity.’ See: Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor. Cobra II. The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq. New York: Patheon Books, 2006, 64.
 ‘The U.S. and China’s Nine Dash Line: Ending the Ambiguity.’ Brookings Institute. 6 Feb, 2014. https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-u-s-and-chinas-nine-dash-line-ending-the-ambiguity-2/
 ‘The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an ambitious effort to improve regional cooperation and connectivity on a trans-continental scale. The initiative aims to strengthen infrastructure, trade, and investment links between China and some 65 other countries that account collectively for over 30 percent of global GDP, 62 percent of population, and 75 percent of known energy reserves. The BRI consists primarily of the Silk Road Economic Belt, linking China to Central and South Asia and onward to Europe, and the New Maritime Silk Road, linking China to the nations of South East Asia, the Gulf Countries, North Africa, and on to Europe. Six other economic corridors have been identified to link other countries to the Belt and the Road. The scope of the initiative is still taking shape—more recently the initiative has been interpreted to be open to all countries as well as international and regional organizations.’ See: ‘Belt and Road Initiative.’ The World Bank 28 Mar, 2018. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/regional-integration/brief/belt-and-road-initiative
 ‘Coercion is the use or threatened use of military force to defeat any elements of the population that resist or threaten to resist an occupation … Coercion in occupations can take the form of either explicit actual violence, or latent violence that deters violent opposition to occupation. Military occupiers may employ violence in order to destroy any opposition. Occupiers may also use the threat of violence to quell any resistance before it erupts … coercion becomes a necessary prerequisite to these more cooperative strategies when significant opposition is present’ See: David Edelstein. Occupational Hazards. Success and Failure in Military Occupations. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008, 49-53.
 Capital ships are the most potent surface arm of a navy and have been since circa—seventeenth century and Thayer stipulates this point as navies were continually involved in, ‘war after war [as capital ships] swept the seas …
exhausting strifes.’ See: Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1805. London: Hamlyn, 1980, 77.
 See: Jamie Walker. ‘US forces too weak to defend Australia, says Jim Molan.’ The Australian. 4 Jan, 2018. https://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/defence/us-forces-too-weak-to-defend-australia-says-jim-molan/news-story/a9cae939218b980b88d510c4780a1cdd
 The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis is able to be used as a guide to what a war would bring and although this crisis did not evolve further than a show of strength on the part of China through a live fire exercise, it nevertheless ‘disrupted naval shipping and air commercial air traffic, causing harm to Taiwan’s economy … [and] Taiwanese scrambled to reserve seats on flights to North America.’ See: Michael Cole. ‘The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. The Forgotten Showdown between China and America.’ The National Interest. 10 Mar, 2017. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-third-taiwan-strait-crisis-the-forgotten-showdown-19742
 ‘China shuns rivalry in the Pacific as Australia says “this is our patch.” ChannelNewsAsia. 8 Nov, 2018. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/world/china-shuns-rivalry-in-pacific-as-australia-says–this-is-our-patch–10907760