NT election: is China’s Belt and Road Initiative the answer to a struggling economy?

While the COVID-19 pandemic is dominating domestic politics and will likely feature prominently in the upcoming Queensland election, there are other issues at play in this weekend’s election in the Northern Territory.

One of the thorniest issues is whether the NT government will follow Victoria in signing a memorandum of understanding to join China’s controversial belt and road asean — and whether the NT could become over-reliant on China.

China has long been a politically sensitive issue in the territory. The decision by the NT government to lease the Darwin port to a Chinese company for 99 years remains a sore point for many. It was meant to symbolise Darwin as a “gateway to Asia”, but has been seen by some as China’s “gateway south”, into the territory.

The NT election has focused attention on Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s trade mission to China last October as photographs appeared showing him signing documents with Chinese officials.

His office hasn’t disclosed to the public what they were, but Gunner’s spokesman has denied the government has already signed up to the BRI or any related projects.

The NT Independent has filed a freedom of information request to force the government to release details of any deals it has signed with China, but the newspaper says the government has yet to act on it.

Both Labor and the CLP have been cautious in how they talk about China and Belt and Road, claiming they would not pursue anything that went against Australia’s strategic interests.

Gunner and the incumbent Port of Darwin member, Paul Kirby, have been quick to remind the electorate that it was not a Labor government that leased the Darwin Port. However, when the chief minister hosted the Chinese ambassador, Cheng Jingye, at a reception in Darwin in October, he described the port deal as a “win” for Australia.

The CLP, meanwhile, says if it wins the election, it would work with the federal government to take advantage of the “economic interests China presents”. This is generally in line with the position advocated by the NT Australia-China Business Council.

The leader of the new Territory Alliance party, Terry Mills, who is a former NT chief minister, also says his party would develop “constructive” relationships with China. He added, however, that the NT’s “most critical infrastructure relationship is with the Commonwealth government.”

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