(ATF) Relations between Beijing and the two major Pacific nations have sunk further as Australia said it would review a Chinese company's ownership of a strategic port, while New Zealand's leader said differences between the two countries were becoming "harder to reconcile".
Canberra is reportedly examining a 99-year-lease of a commercial and military port in its north to a Chinese firm, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported on Sunday, a move that could further inflame tensions between Beijing and Canberra.
Defence officials are checking if Landbridge Group, owned by Chinese billionaire Ye Cheng, should be forced to give up its ownership of the port in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, on national security grounds, the newspaper said.
Australia's national security committee has asked the Defence department to "come back with some advice" on the lease and the review is underway, Defence Minister Peter Dutton was quoted as saying in the report.
Landbridge, which has close ties to the Chinese military according to media reports, won a bidding process in 2015 to operate the port in a deal worth A$506 million ($390 million).
The decision raised eyebrows in Washington as the port is the southern flank of US operations in the Pacific. Then president Barack Obama was reportedly angry at then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull for not having informed him of the deal.
The report comes amid increasingly sour ties between Canberra and Beijing over the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and Australian criticism over crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Chinese investment in Australia plunged almost two-thirds last year to less than US$1 billion.
Separately, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday that differences with China are becoming harder to reconcile as Beijing's role in the world grows and changes.
In a speech at the China Business Summit in Auckland, Ardern said there are things on which China and New Zealand "do not, cannot, and will not agree", but added these differences need not define their relationship.
"It will not have escaped the attention of anyone here that as China's role in the world grows and changes, the differences between our systems – and the interests and values that shape those systems – are becoming harder to reconcile," Ardern said.
Managing the relationship with China is not always going to be easy and "there can be no guarantees", Ardern added.
The US also criticised Beijing, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying in a Sunday interview that China had recently acted "more aggressively abroad" and was behaving "increasingly in adversarial ways."
With reporting by Reuters