One of China’s highest-placed Pacific diplomats has offered a scathing appraisal of the “political suspicion” heaped upon his nation, branding it “very negative for the image of Australia”.
Wang Xining, deputy to China’s Australian ambassador, made the comments when asked about the national reaction to the controversial 99-year leasing of Darwin’s port to Chinese-owned company Landbridge in 2015.
“In China, everybody, I mean the people in the street, think very positively of Australia,” Mr Wang said.
“They think Australia is a great nation with friendly people, and the recent report[s] about the unnecessary doubts and the political suspicion of China’s strategic move is something very negative for the image of Australia in China.
The leasing of the port to Landbridge by the Northern Territory’s former Country Liberal Party government received widespread backlash after the deal, including a reprimand from then-US president Barack Obama.
The company has in the past been linked to China’s ruling Communist Party and the port’s lease has been viewed by some as a long-term strategic acquisition due to its proximity to simmering geo-political tensions in the South China Sea.
“All the cooperation in Northern Territory is business-based,” Mr Wang said.
“We respect the market rule, we respect the rule of law, and everything has gone through government scrutiny.
“So I think these doubts are totally groundless, and we hope that in the future people will understand China better, to remove such unnecessary doubt.”
New chamber branch opened in Darwin
Mr Wang’s comments were made following the official opening of the new Darwin office for the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of the Northern Territory.
The chamber’s expansion into the Northern Territory has been lauded as a way to grow economic ties between the region and Beijing.
NT chamber president Alan Jape, a prominent long-term Territory businessman, said the NT would benefit from getting involved in China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative — an economic strategy of China’s central government.
“We are close to Asia, I’m sure this is something we’d be able to benefit off each other.”
The policy has long been approached by Australia’s federal government with wariness, but Mr Jape said this should not dictate the future direction of the Northern Territory.
“I think we should have our own thinking as well,” he said.
“You know, now Victoria has the [memorandum of understanding] with them, so we should also lead the way … we have to continue pushing.
“One Belt, One Road is good for us, and I think it’s better to be open-minded … [and] understand more.”
One Belt, One Road potential for big investments: Jape
Mr Jape said he believed One Belt, One Road investments in agriculture, aquaculture, rail and mining could have a lasting impact for the Territory’s flagging economy.
“China is still, no matter what, there’s a big market in there,” he said.
Chinese business ties within the Northern Territory have tightened in recent years, including through the development of a new luxury hotel, direct flights from Shenzhen and investment in gas pipeline infrastructure.
He said he envisaged extended cooperation between China and the NT could see projects for the region including high speed rail.
NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner, who met with Mr Wang during his visit to Darwin, has previously been positive about the One Belt, One Road Initiative.
“We’re obviously supportive of positive relationships with China, and we’ve got a good relationship with them: they’ve [Landbridge] invested in our port which is important for us,” Mr Gunner said in 2018.
“We know they’re interested in investing more … we call it Developing the North, they call it One Belt, One Road.