There’s mischief making and some very interesting signaling going on in the United States-Australia relationship today.

This morning’s Australian newspaper has a front-page report detailing a leaked US State Department poll conducted nationally in Australia on the issue of Chinese investment in Australian port infrastructure. The poll, apparently conducted by the Office of Opinion Research within the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department, concludes that a majority of Australian respondents see some risk to Australian national security from the investment in Darwin’s port by Chinese firm Landbridge. Reportedly State Department analysis on the poll results concludes they will 'likely force Australians to rethink their choices of when to put national security ahead of economic gain'.

Various arms of the US government have conducted polling in Australia for more than 70 years, and I would hope that Australia conducts polling of domestic American views too (although I understand this is not regularly done). But it is unusual for this part of the State Department to conduct such a poll within Australia. It is even more unusual for such a poll to be leaked. And it has been leaked in a careful, deliberate way. The lead quote in The Australian piece is from ASPI’s director Peter Jennings, who has been extremely critical of the Darwin deal. An accompanying op-ed is written by Geoff Wade, who has written on this issue for ASPI and is sharply critical of what he sees as likely Chinese nefarious intentions in Darwin. This story was choreographed for maximum impact.

The question is why? Firstly, officials and experts in Washington remain deeply offended by the Darwin port deal and the way it was handled by Australia. On my recent visit to the US the issue was raised regularly and often. We forget that losing face is not the exclusive preserve of Asia, and Washington has lost face on this issue by having one of their chief competitors strike a deal for a presence alongside US Marines in Darwin. Make no mistake, Australia handled the Darwin port issue poorly: we did not have a comprehensive and integrated process for assessing the strategic implications of economic activity, nor for consulting on it with our most important ally. Australian officials have acknowledged that much in various parliamentary hearings.

But US concerns about the Darwin port deal are overwrought and under substantiated in my view.

The Washington narrative on the deal is that Landbridge is playing into a general pattern whereby Chinese state owned enterprises seek to secure interests in strategic maritime infrastructure in sensitive locations. Former US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead flagged mid last year how such a strategy might be calibrated to undermine US and allied interests. More specific allegations about what Landbridge might achieve through this deal include local intelligence collection, or the coercion of local officials. I can’t rule out that this is a possibility, though paying $500 million would seem an expensive option to take out for intelligence collection and local sabotage. And it’s hard to see how Landbridge might succeed in coercing the Maritime Union of Australia when neither the Australian or American governments have ever been able to. I have probed various American interlocutors on their concerns about Landbridge and am yet to see anything substantial that would back up these suspicions. A compelling, publicly articulated case would be needed before Australia could move to cut off aspects of Chinese investment on strategic grounds. Even for our closest friend, trouncing a commercial deal on the basis of whispered dark suspicions would be a step too far. It makes as much sense as Australia leaning on the US to expel Chinese companies from the port of Los Angeles or Seattle.
 
Whoever leaked the State Department poll wants to go over the heads of Australian officials and prompt discussion on US-China issues amongst the Australian public.

It is clear that for some time US officials have been frustrated by the lack of public discussion on force posture and US-China issues being led by their Australian counterparts. They want Australian leaders to talk more about the complexities of managing China’s rise and they are right: the case for and cadence of force posture developments in Northern Australia should not have to be articulated by visiting US generals and admirals. This happened again yesterday, with a discussion on the rotation of B1 bombers prompted by the terse comments of visiting US Pacific Air Force Commander General Lori Robinson. You'll remember that's the suggestion that was vociferously denied by former Prime Minister Abbott and the US Embassy Canberra in May last year, after a US defence official 'misspoke' in routine congressional hearings.

A broader public discussion on these issues in Australia is needed, so that we can avoid these sensationalist spikes. But sowing mischief in the Australian public debate is not the way to achieve it.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ken Hodge