Australian leader dismisses concerns about Chinese company

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s prime minister on Wednesday dismissed public concerns revealed by a U.S. opinion poll about a Chinese company leasing a strategically important port.

The Australian newspaper reported Wednesday that the U.S. State Department had polled Australians via test message about their opinions about Chinese company Landbridge securing a 99-year lease over the Port of Darwin.

Almost half those surveyed said allowing a Chinese company to manage the port posed “a lot of risk” to national security and nine in 10 said it posed at least some risk, according to U.S. government research obtained by the newspaper.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Australian defense and security officials had determined the 506 million Australian dollar ($375 million) deal struck last year did not threaten national interests.

“That’s how we determine security issues, not — with all due respect — by text message opinion polls,” Turnbull told reporters.

The newspaper said two polls were commissioned in February, each involving more than 1,000 respondents nationwide. The polls were conducted on behalf of the Office of Opinion Research, which is part of the Bureau of Intelligence Research.

U.S. Ambassador to Australia John Berry said the State Department “conducts public opinion polls in countries around the world to supplement available polling and help us understand international perspectives.”

“Such low-level polls do not reflect U.S. government views, policy or position,” Berry said in a statement.

Darwin is a major military base where U.S. Marines have established a rotational presence.

Gen. Lori Robinson, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Air Forces, is currently in Australia discussing plans to rotate U.S. bombers through northern Australian air force bases at Darwin and Tindal as part of an increased U.S. military presence in the Pacific.

An opinion analysis document, dated March 2 and marked for official use only, warned that Landbridge’s “reported ties” to the Chinese armed forces “raise concerns port access could facilitate intelligence collection on U.S. and Australia military forces stationed nearby,” the newspaper reported.

Landbridge says it is a private company with no links to the Chinese military.

President Barack Obama asked Turnbull about the port deal when they meet in Manila in November.

“The United States government is satisfied that the security issues relating to the lease of the port were examined carefully and professionally and appropriately,” Turnbull said.