Ministers and the Department of Defence are supposed to be a little ahead of the rest of us in seeing dangers to national security, what with their intelligence briefings, secret threat assessments and all.
So it was curious in 2015 when they thought it was fine to let a Chinese conglomerate take over Darwin's commercial port facilities, though most of the public wouldn't have countenanced the idea.
As relations with China keep worsening, who looks stupid now?
Anyway, the government is catching up with what a taxi driver might have told you in 2015. Defence Minister Peter Dutton has directed his department to have another look at this matter.
He probably just wants bureaucratic cover for what he knows the government must do: require the company, Landbridge, to dispose of its 99-year lease on the facility, called Darwin Port.
If we go ahead with that, China will be even more angry with us than it is now.
Actually, there's been a lot more heat than light about this Darwin Port issue - plenty of vague supposition in media reporting about a threat to national security, but just about no specifics. Why, exactly, should a Chinese company not control this infrastructure?
In fact, there are security problems with Landbridge controlling Darwin Port. They include risks of espionage and sabotage, neither of which should be exaggerated, and, more realistically, the need to monitor the facility to remove such dangers.
Maybe the biggest hazard is that one day we might have to take control of the port at the worst possible time, amid dangerous tension with China.
"We always respect the sovereignty of other nations." @ScottMorrisonMP responds to a question about Qld LNP backbencher George Christensen's demands that the Port of Darwin lease be put on the table in bargaining over trade tensions with China. #ntpol#auspol#qldpolpic.twitter.com/6EiQjXMhyQ— David Marler (@Qldaah) May 14, 2020
No ill-intent should be attributed to Landbridge or anyone who works there. But any Chinese company must do what its government tells it. So if the Chinese military saw an opportunity in Landbridge's control of Darwin Port, the company would have to co-operate.
The situation is much like what the government thinks about in assessing security clearances. Perfectly honest and well-meaning Australians are not allowed access to national secrets if they have too much personal connection to a potentially hostile country. That's because friends and relatives in that country can be threatened to make someone in Australia co-operate.
One example of valuable co-operation at Darwin for the Chinese military would be hiding and running equipment for listening to radio transmissions, especially any coming from warships and military aircraft. This is the sort of thing that two Chinese intelligence ships did while loitering around northern Australia during the big Talisman Sabre military exercise last month.
Eavesdropping on transmissions is quite normal between countries that don't fully trust each other. By collecting and analysing signals from radars and communications links, armed forces and intelligence agencies can work out a lot about the capabilities of those systems and associated weapons.
Ships, submarines, aircraft, satellites and ground installations collect the signals. Undercover agents can do it, too, but can't be too elaborately equipped for the job and they might be able to get to the right location only sometimes.
An installation in a port facility, on the other hand, could be well equipped and continuously operated, providing what military types call persistent surveillance.
Importantly, it might also be only a few kilometres, maybe only hundreds of metres, from the source of the transmissions - say, a destroyer in the port - so it could pick up very weak signals that a satellite or distant aircraft might miss.
Antennas of a signals-intelligence station can be disguised as building parts or garden features. Operators, posing as workers or managers, can be of any nationality if paid enough.
Darwin is a particularly handy location for such activity, because Australia and its allies, including the US, hold big exercises around the Top End.
So that would be the temptation for the Chinese military. Whether it could get away with it is doubtful, because Australian security agencies would be on guard for such shenanigans. The idea is so obvious that you can read about it in today's newspaper.
That means the real problem is probably the need for our people to monitor Darwin Port - year after year after year. It would be better if a Chinese company just didn't control it.
It's much the same story in relation to sabotage. In principle, the Chinese military could lean on Landbridge to prepare to disable the facilities in a crisis, so Australian and allied warships couldn't use them. In practice, it's more likely that observation by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation would ensure no such thing could happen.
But ASIO would have to observe.
MORE AGE OF THE DRAGON:
Then there's what may be a bigger problem, pointed to by the Australian Defence Association.
In a time of dangerous tension with China, Australia would certainly want to remove Landbridge from control of Darwin Port.
But doing such a thing would worsen the tension, says Neil James, executive director of the association. As we struggled to calm down a crisis, provoking China by moving against its interests here would be among the last things we'd want to do.
Also, ejecting Landbridge would give China an excuse for taking action against us, James adds.
So the government needs to tell the company now to dispose of the asset. If necessary, Darwin Port could be compulsorily acquired and sold to someone else at little net cost to the budget.
China would be furious, not so much because of the loss of some vague military opportunity but because it's already meeting resistance in its Belt and Road Initiative, a key feature of which is taking economic interest in other countries' infrastructure.
Australia would not merely be saying "no" to investment; it would be rolling back some of what China had already achieved, and setting a precedent that other countries might follow.
- Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.
- This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.