- Australian businessman could sell of tropical islands to Chinese buyers
- Ian Gowrie-Smith is selling 21 atolls known as Conflict Islands in Coral Sea
- He appealed personally to Foreign Minister Penny Wong over the auction
- Mr Gowrie-Smith is baffled by the lack of interest from federal government
- He admitted his agent has engaged with Chinese buyers over the islands
- They are capable of holding military runways and sit on key shipping lanes
- Australia’s new Air Force boss said China’s air defences ‘not impenetrable’
- Ukraine ambassador to Australia warned country over reliance on Beijing
An Australian businessman has revealed the federal government has shown no interest in his string of tropical islands on Australia’s doorstep but confirmed China are in discussions over the sale.
Retired entrepreneur Ian Gowrie-Smith is selling his 21 atolls in the Coral Sea off Papua New Guinea aptly known as the Conflict Islands – an area crucial to shipping lanes and with land capable of holding military runways.
The communist superpower has been muscling in on the South Pacific and doing deals with Australia’s closest neighbours in what many experts believe is a clandestine bid to establish a chain of naval bases in the region.
It comes as Australia’s new Air Force chief described the authoritarian state’s air defences as ‘not impenetrable’ as he confirmed on Monday that reconnaissance missions in the South China Sea will continue despite a number of recent incidents that have put Australian military personnel in danger.
Mr Gowrie-Smith said he has personally written to Foreign Minister Penny Wong to advise her the islands, just 940kilometres off Cairns are for sale, assuming the government would be keen on securing them.
However, his attempts at communication have fallen upon deaf ears and the agent in charge of selling the atolls is now speaking with Chinese buyers as he attempts to cash-in on the asset.
‘According to the agent, he’s got deals going through right at the moment of Chinese buying those islands,’ he told A Current Affair.
‘I don’t know whether they are of a strategic nature. But the fact of the matter is they have the money.’
One of the islands already has a runway for light aircraft travelling into the area, while another has the capability to build a landing strip for a planes the size of 747s given its length.
That would give China the platform to land and launch fighter jets within close proximity of Australian shores should it purchase the Conflict Islands.
The islands are close to Australian shipping lanes and nearby there are three underwater internet cables critical to connecting the country with the rest of the world.
China has already shown a propensity to establish small island bases, creating concrete outposts in the South China Sea.
Mr Gowrie-Smith said he’s baffled by the lack of interest from the federal government in his islands which appear key to the nation’s interests in the Pacific.
‘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,’ he said.
The 74-year-old said he wants to get his affairs in order and would sell to the Chinese if the right offer came in.
He even offered ‘mates rates’ to his country of birth, saying he is willing to accept a lower bid of $36.3million should Australia move to buy them.
He wants his charity CICI, a turtle conservation program that runs off the island, to be secured as a part of the deal.
‘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,’ Mr Gowrie-Smith said.
‘Waiting until after a sale has happened and being disturbed by the possibilities the sale might create is the wrong time to get interested.’
Michael Shoebridge, the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said China claiming the islands could have catastrophic impacts on national security.
‘The People’s Liberation Army 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,’ he said.
Mr Shoebridge urged the federal government to get involved immediately to ensure the Conflict Islands don’t fall into the wrong hands.
A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade refused to be drawn in on the politics behind the auction.
‘We are aware that the owner, Mr Gowrie-Smith, is seeking to sell the privately-owned Conflict Islands in Papua New Guinea,’ a statement said.
‘Any such sale would be a private commercial transaction and ultimately it is Mr Gowrie-Smith’s decision to sell, and to whom he sells, under relevant PNG law.’
Australia’s new Air Force boss, Air Marshal Robert Chipman, admitted recent contact with Chinese fighters had been ‘robust to say the least’ after a string of dangerous incidents.
An Australian spy plane on May 26 was intercepted by a Chinese fighter jet while conducting surveillance in the South China Sea.
Minister for Defence Richard Marles said the RAAF P-8A Poseidon aircraft was carrying out maritime surveillance when it was intercepted by a Chinese J-16 fighter aircraft in a ‘dangerous manoeuvre’.
In July, the HMAS Parramatta was tracked and followed by a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine.
Air Marshal Chipman admitted while Beijing has ‘formidable aerospace capability’ in the South China Sea, Australia were still able to have a presence in the area and warned Xi Jinping they would not be deterred by inflamed military displays.
‘Certainly, we have seen a recent spate of unsafe incidences, but it’s not a trend line that we can see sustained,’ Air Marshal Chipman told media inside Defence Headquarters in Canberra.
‘Our operations haven’t changed, it is still business as usual for us, we force generate our crews to a very high standard, they’re capable of operating in contested environments and so we think they’re well equipped to keep operating in the South China Sea.
‘It doesn’t make it impenetrable and it doesn’t mean you can’t deliver military effects to achieve your interests when you are operating against China, so I don’t think to that extent it’s an exclusive area to us.’
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s ambassador to Australia has warned the country to ‘get rid of overreliance’ to China or face similar circumstances to its current war with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Vasyl Myroshnychenko told News Corp there were similarities between Ukraine’s current trade, energy and food crisis as a result of Russia’s invasion with Australia’s growing tension with China.
He urged his Aussie counterparts to increase its local manufacturing or face extensive issues.
‘If you rely on one market too much, there will be a day when that market will want to leverage it,’ he said.
‘We had to diversify, we learned the hard way. So I think it’s a good lesson for Australian exporters’.
Mr Myroshnychenko said mineral-rich Australia was in a strong position to impose itself internationally and should look to process these within its shores rather than exporting raw materials to China.
How China’s feud with Australia has escalated over the past three years
- 2019: Australian intelligence services conclude that China was responsible for a cyber-attack on Australia’s parliament and three largest political parties in the run-up to a May election.
- April 2020: Australian PM Scott Morrison begins canvassing his fellow world leaders for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Britain and France are initially reluctant but more than 100 countries eventually back an investigation.
- April 15: Morrison is one of the few leaders to voice sympathy with Donald Trump’s criticisms of the World Health Organization, which the US president accuses of bias towards China.
- April 21: China’s embassy accuses Australian foreign minister Peter Dutton of ‘ignorance and bigotry’ and ‘parroting what those Americans have asserted’ after he called for China to be more transparent about the outbreak.
- April 23: Australia’s agriculture minister David Littleproud calls for G20 nations to campaign against the ‘wet markets’ which are common in China and linked to the earliest coronavirus cases.
- April 26: Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye hints at a boycott of Australian wine and beef and says tourists and students might avoid Australia ‘while it’s not so friendly to China’. Canberra dismisses the threat and warns Beijing against ‘economic coercion’.
- May 11: China suspends beef imports from four of Australia’s largest meat processors. These account for more than a third of Australia’s $1.1billion beef exports to China.
- May 18: The World Health Organization backs a partial investigation into the pandemic, but China says it is a ‘joke’ for Australia to claim credit. The same day, China imposes an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley. Australia says it may challenge this at the WTO.
- May 21: China announces new rules for iron ore imports which could allow Australian imports – usually worth $41billion per year – to be singled out for extra bureaucratic checks.
- June 5: Beijing warns tourists against travelling to Australia, alleging racism and violence against the Chinese in connection with Covid-19.
- June 9: China’s Ministry of Education warns students to think carefully about studying in Australia, similarly citing alleged racist incidents.
- June 19: Australia says it is under cyber-attack from a foreign state which government sources say is believed to be China. The attack has been targeting industry, schools, hospitals and government officials, Morrison says.
- July 9: Australia suspends extradition treaty with Hong Kong and offers to extend the visas of 10,000 Hong Kongers who are already in Australia over China’s national security law which effectively bans protest.
- August 18: China launches 12-month anti-dumping investigation into wines imported from Australia in a major threat to the $6billion industry.
- August 26: Prime Minster Scott Morrison announces he will legislate to stop states and territories signing deals with foreign powers that go against Australia’s foreign policy. Analysts said it is aimed at China.
- October 13: Trade Minister Simon Birmingham says he’s investigating reports that Chinese customs officials have informally told state-owned steelmakers and power plants to stop Aussie coal, leaving it in ships off-shore.
- November 2: Agriculture Minister David Littleproud reveals China is holding up Aussie lobster imports by checking them for minerals.
- November 3: Barley, sugar, red wine, logs, coal, lobster and copper imports from Australia unofficially banned under a directive from the government, according to reports.
- November 18: China releases bizarre dossier of 14 grievances with Australia.
- November 27: Australian coal exports to China have dropped 96 per cent in the first three weeks of November as 82 ships laden with 8.8million tonnes of coal are left floating off Chinese ports where they have been denied entry.
- November 28: Beijing imposed a 212 per cent tariff on Australia’s $1.2 billion wine exports, claiming they were being ‘dumped’ or sold at below-cost. The claim is denied by both Australia and Chinese importers.
- November 30: Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao posted a doctored image showing a grinning Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child. The move outraged Australians.
- December 12: Australian coal is added to a Chinese blacklist.
- December 24: China suspends imports of Australian timber from NSW and WA after local customs officers say they found pests in the cargo.
- January 11, 2021: Australia blocks $300million construction deal that would have seen state-owned China State Construction Engineering Corporation takeover Probuild. The bid was blacked over national security concerns.
- February 5, 2021: China confirms Melbourne journalist and single mother Cheng Lei has been formally arrested after being detained in August, 2020.
- February 23, 2021: China accuses Australia of being in an ‘axis of white supremacy’ with the UK, USA, Canada and NZ in an editorial.
- March 11, 2021: Australia is accused of genocide by a Communist Party newspaper editor.
- March 15, 2021: Trade Minister Dan Tehan announced he wants the World Trade Organisation to help mediate discussions between the two countries over the trade dispute.
- April 21, 2021: Foreign Minister Marise Payne announces Australia has scrapped Victoria’s controversial Belt and Road deal with China using new veto powers.
- May 6, 2021: China indefinitely suspends all strategic economic talks with Australia, blaming the Morrison Government’s attitude towards the relationship. The move cuts off all diplomatic contact with Beijing under the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue, freezing discussions between key officials below a ministerial level.
- June 22, 2021: China tries to ‘ambush’ Australia with a push to officially declare the Great Barrier Reef ‘in danger’
- September 15, 2021: Australia, the UK and the US announce the AUKUS security pact which will give the Australian military nuclear-powered submarines to counter China growing aggression in the Indo Pacific. The move is met with seething anger in Beijing.
- March 24, 2022: Details of a Memorandum of Understanding emerge which could allow Beijing to station warships on the Solomon Islands, just 1,000 miles off the coast of Australia. Canberra warns it is ‘concerned by any actions that destabilise the security of our region’.
- April 25, 2022: Defence Minister Peter Dutton warns on Anzac Day that Russia and China’s resurgence means Australia must be on a war-footing. ‘The only way you can preserve peace is to prepare for war, and to be strong as a country,’ he said. ‘We’re in a period very similar to the 1930s.’
- April 27, 2022: Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrew says China is likely to send troops to the Solomon Islands, and was using the row to derail Australia’s Federal Election. She said Beijing was ‘clearly very aware we are in a federal election campaign at the moment.’
- May 13, 2022: Defence Minister Peter Dutton announces Australian military are tracking a Chinese spy ship 250 nautical miles northwest of Broome in WA near the Harold E Holt naval communication station. The sighting was mostly written off as a pre-election stunt.
- June 5, 2022: A Chinese fighter jet intercepts an Australian spy plane with a ‘dangerous manoeuvre’ on May 26 and the details are revealed weeks later.