(Repeats story that ran on May 9 with no change in text)
By Tom Westbrook
DARWIN May 9 When the United States signed an
agreement in 2011 to use Australia's tropical port of Darwin as
a base for military exercises, it was viewed as a key focus of
former President Barack Obama's strategic pivot to Asia.
But when ammunition and equipment arrives in
June for war games between U.S. and Australian forces in
tropical Darwin, it will come ashore at the town's Chinese-run
port under the eyes of a firm said to have links with China's
China, and not the United States, is fast becoming
long-neglected Darwin's best hope for rejuvenating a city, named
after the 19th-century naturalist Charles Darwin and better
known for its monster crocodiles and giant beers.
"I can feel that we are definitely on the cusp of another
great leap in our economic growth," said Darwin's Lord Mayor,
Katrina Fong Lim, whose ancestors emigrated along with thousands
of other Chinese migrants in the 1860s, lured by the discovery
of gold. "You just need to have a look around you to look at the
investment that's coming in," she said in an interview.
Touted as Australia's front door to Asian markets, and a
potential hub for resources and agriculture exports, Darwin is
the centrepiece of a A$5 billion ($3.76 billion) government
loans scheme aimed at developing the continent's north.
China wants to include Darwin, located closer to Indonesia's
capital Jakarta than it is to Canberra, in its ambitious One
Belt One Road project and the local government has grand plans
to attract big-spending Chinese tourists.
MILITARY VS TRADING PARTNERS
"The Chinese are walking the talk," Port of Darwin Chief
Executive Terry O'Connor told Reuters, as three
camouflage-painted Blackhawk helicopters flew low over the
harbour on the April afternoon when a contingent of Marines
landed for a regular six-month rotation of forces.
"The Chinese are saying there's an opportunity and they're
investing behind it," said O'Connor.
Darwin has hosted a contingent of 1,250 Marines since 2011,
part of former President Barack Obama’s strategic pivot to Asia
to counter a rising China. It is due to grow to 2,500 by 2020.
Australia’s decision to allow China's Landbridge Group Co to
secure a 99-year lease over the strategically important Port of
Darwin raised some eyebrows in the United States. The port is
the southern flank of U.S. operations in the Pacific.
O'Connor insisted there is "no evidence" of military
involvement and the port is "purely a commercial operation".
Landbridge, a petrochemical and port logistics firm, did not
respond to requests for comment.
Some critics in Australia, on the other hand, question the
tight military relationship with the United States – it has
fought alongside America in all its conflicts since World War
One – when China has emerged as Australia’s most important
Landbridge plans to add capacity to the cruise ship terminal
and to build a luxury hotel on the waterfront.
Other projects on the drawing board include everything from
soybeans and prawn farms, to frozen beef exports and a huge
phosphate mine, along with new government-funded roads and rail
lines to link them.
But for all the talk, there's as yet little action in
Darwin. None of the federal government's promised loans for
infrastructure have been disbursed.
"Two years down the track you'll probably see the same," Kim
Ly told Reuters, as she served just four diners at her wharf
fish and chip shop. "We came here, we worked hard, we saved up,
we bought a business. But that was before. Now it is very hard."
The city's population has stalled short of 150,000 - about
half a percent of Australian's total - and is seen falling next
Low unemployment of 3.5 percent and strong headline growth
figures, boosted by multi-billion dollar gas projects from Inpex
and Royal Dutch Shell, mask a weak underlying
economy projected to shrink further.
Visitor numbers are officially forecast to be lower than
they were a decade ago, and they will spend 300 fewer hotel
nights in the Northern Territory this year than they did in
Throughput at the wharves is down and the main shopping mall
is filled with 'for lease' signs. Short-term apartment rentals,
favoured by the resource industry's fly-in-fly-out workers, lie
The top exports from Darwin are manganese, bound for
Malaysia, and live cattle, destined for Indonesia. But piles of
iron ore that once waited for export have vanished, the workers
who brought it there are gone with it and the outback mines
whence it came have shut since commodity prices began to fall in
Inpex and Shell's major LNG projects, which are tipped to
have reserves to last a generation, are beset by delays and cost
Despite plans to extend the quay line and reclaim more land,
investment at the port so far amounts to A$15 million spent on
extending asphalted areas, a new pilot boat, and a yard for
Major highways in the Northern Territory remain unsealed and
often impassable when it rains.
Lonely Planet named Darwin one of the top 10 cities in the
world to visit in 2012, citing its vibrant night life, sunset
beaches and proximity to several national parks.
Some visitors, however, were unimpressed.
Sharice Sun, a 29-year-old from Xian in China on a working
holiday was headed for the library on her day off for lack of
anything better to do. Her verdict: "It's too hot, it's small
(Editing by Jane Wardell and Bill Tarrant)