‘Serious’: China on Queensland’s doorstep
A Chinese construction on Australia's doorstep could have "serious implications" for national security and decimate traditional fishing in Indigenous communities.
A Chinese-run company has signed a memorandum of understanding with Papua New Guinea to construct a $200m "comprehensive multifunctional fishery industrial park" on the Torres Strait island of Daru.
The island is one of few in the Torres Strait not under Australian control. It is just a few kilometres from Australia's maritime border and less than 200km from the mainland.
The prospect has alarmed national security experts over fears the development, which is under the auspices of China's Belt and Road initiative, could double as a Chinese military facility.
Concerns have also been raised Chinese-controlled fishing vessels, which have been accused of plundering biodiverse waters, could patrol the region under the Papua New Guinean flag.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne told the Senate this month the Australian Border Force had an "ongoing presence" in the Torres Strait, and worked with Papua New Guinean law enforcement.
She said she "expected all fishers in the Torres Strait region to follow respective Australian and Papua New Guinea laws, and international obligations".
Labor foreign spokeswoman Penny Wong said someone in government had "clearly dropped the ball" over the development.
"How did the Morrison government not see this coming?" she said.
"Scott Morrison talks a lot about protecting our sovereignty, but this episode raises serious questions about whether he's actually delivering what he says."
Labor has accused the government of failing to carry through on a promise to introduce drones to protect Australia's shores, instead relying on an "ageing fleet" of aircraft and sea vessels.
But independent senator Rex Patrick, an outspoken critic of Beijing, claimed Labor had been slow to speak out on the deal, questioning whether the delay was the result of internal divisions on China.
He said the Daru project would have "serious implications" for Australia's national security.
"There is no doubt that such a presence will complicate our security and provide China with a new foothold for interference in PNG," he told NCA NewsWire.
"The government needs to make that very clear to PNG and offer Australia's support for alternative development projects."
2 weeks ago I questioned @MarisePayne about #China's plans to build a fishing base in #PNG next to Torres Strait. @SenatorWong is only now engaging on this national security issue. Why so slow @AustralianLabor? More internal divisions about China? #auspol https://t.co/ZzBhTIQmPj— Rex Patrick (@Senator_Patrick) December 22, 2020
"In the event that the government is ineffective in deterring PNG support for this project, given that Chinese fishing fleets have a well-known tendency for the over exploitation of marine resources, Australia will need a plan to protect the marine ecosystems of the Torres Strait from Chinese depredations."
'HEAD-SCRATCHER': QUESTIONS OVER BEIJING'S INTENT
Lowy Institute Pacific Islands Program director Jonathan Pryke said it was easy to understand PNG's eagerness to sign the deal with China given the poverty on Daru.
But Beijing's motivation was much harder to understand, with the site providing little commercial or strategic value, he told NCA NewsWire.
Mr Pryke said memorandums of understanding in the region were commonplace, and often did not lead to the project being completed.
He viewed the chances of the Daru facility being built as minimal, describing the agreement as "a head-scratcher".
"It could be just to stir the pot a bit; it could be Chinese intermediaries looking to make a buck," he said.
"I just look at the probability of this actually happening, and it's a close to zero as you can get.
"If China wants to set up a military base in the Pacific … you don't want to do it in such open view, and so close to Australia's doorstep. What strategic value does that have for you?"
He conceded the move could be an attempt to antagonise Canberra, but said the "downsides here are far greater than the upsides for China".
"It may be a strong symbolic message to say: We're getting this close to you, we have ambitions this close to your borders. But I can't see China ever actually building something there," he said.
"It would inflame tensions to such a degree it wouldn't be in their interests.
"Things have gotten to a new low this year, so don't rule it out completely. But I'm very sceptical that this is the play."
'NOTHING LEFT': FEARS FOR TRADITIONAL OWNERS
Torres Strait Fishing Association president Phillip Ketchell warned an increase in commercial fishing would be "detrimental to (the Indigenous) way of life".
He said local fisherman stringently monitored against overfishing, but were already struggling to maintain traditional fishing practices because of commercially licenced Australian operators.
"They'll leave nothing for traditional use," he told NCA NewsWire.
"The traditional owners, for their cultural practices and to earn a living off it, already find it hard to compete. Now you've added another layer targeting the same area and same species.
"If a father wants to teach his son how to traditionally fish crayfish, the stock will be depleted to such a point it will be harder and harder to get."
Australia and PNG have signed a treaty allowing Papua New Guineans to fish a quarter of the total allowable rock lobsters in Australian waters.
But with PNG's monitoring systems not up to scratch, Mr Ketchell said his biggest concern was Australia's ability to police a Chinese armada.
"There's no monitoring system on the ground, which is really worrying because who knows what they're going to take?" he said.
"We don't know that they're going to take, how they're going to take it or where they're going to fish."
The Torres Strait Tropical Rock Lobster Resource Assessment Group has sought confirmation access to the region's limited fish supplies would not be undermined by the facility.
In a November email seen by NCA NewsWire, it received assurances from the Australian Fisheries Management Authority that Australia was working closely with PNG "to ensure we can have an clear understanding of any developments in a timely manner".
Originally published as 'Serious': China on Queensland's doorstep