A potential sale to Chinese interests, of the privately owned Conflict Islands – which lie in the Coral Sea off Australia’s east coast – would put our national security at risk, according to defence experts.
Retired Australian businessman Ian Gowrie-Smith is placing his group of 21 atolls in Papua New Guinea’s Milne Bay Province on the open market.
The Conflict Islands are closer to the Australian mainland than Sydney is to Melbourne and have the potential to provide navy and airforce footholds just 940 kilometres from Cairns.
Gowrie-Smith is concerned about the controversial security pact between the Solomon Islands and China and contacted Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong’s office in June to advise her of his intention to sell the Islands.
“I haven’t heard tickety boo – nothing. I know that it went through all the official levels with PNG’s Australian High Commissioner, so I know that it’s gone through to her,” Gowrie-Smith told A Current Affair.
In the absence of a response from Minister Wong’s office, the 74-year-old former entrepreneur turned conservationist confirmed he would reluctantly sell to Chinese buyers.
The island group is near one of Australia’s main shipping routes, the Jomard Passage, and three submarine internet cables connecting the Australian mainland to the rest of the world.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) Director Michael Shoebridge said the acquisition of the island chain by China could provide an opportunity for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to project power on Australia’s doorstep.
“The PLA supporting itself from facilities in our region just empowers them to do more of the belligerent aggressive things that we see them do in the South China Sea, around Taiwan and against Japan,” Shoebridge said.
The ASPI Defence, Strategy and National Security Program Director recommended the Australian Government should become involved in the sale of the Conflict Islands sooner rather than later.
“Waiting til after a sale has happened and being disturbed by the possibilities the sale might create is the wrong time to get interested,” he said.
Shoebridge pointed to the Morrison government sanctioning Telstra’s purchase of the South Pacific’s largest telecommunications company Digicel last year to head off Chinese influence.
Gowrie-Smith said he is willing to accept a lower bid of around $36.3 million (US$24.9 million) if the sale is in the best interests of Australia’s national security and the successful turtle conservation programme his charity has funded on the islands for the past decade.
“Penny Wong has my email address, she has my mobile number, so let’s see what we can do because I’d love to see these islands protected for the next 100 years,” Gowrie-Smith said.
Minister Wong declined repeated requests for an interview and a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson provided the following statement.
“We are aware that the owner, Gowrie-Smith, is seeking to sell the privately-owned Conflict Islands in Papua New Guinea,” the statement said.
“Any such sale would be a private commercial transaction and ultimately it is Gowrie-Smith’s decision to sell, and to whom he sells, under relevant PNG law.”