Strategic strait at issue in Australia-China rift

Amid trade wars, diplomatic tiffs and propaganda sniping, the ugliness between China and Australia seems set to escalate as Beijing enters an agreement with Papua New Guinea to establish an industrial foothold within the narrow Torres Strait. Radio Australia reports that community leaders in North Queensland, just across the strait from New Guinea, fear that China's plan to construct the facility will jeopardize border security and threaten the commercial fishing sector.

China's Ministry of Commerce announced that Fujian Zhonghong Fishery Company has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Papua New Guinea government to build a $204 million "comprehensive multi-functional fishery industrial park" on the island of Daru, under the rubric of its Belt & Road Initiative. Daru is one of the few Torres Strait Islands that are governed by Papua New Guinea rather than Australia.

Jeffrey Wall of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a former adviser to the PNG government, told Radio Australia: "We should be absolutely alarmed not only because it is strategically located close to Australia, but there is potential for conflict in the Torres Strait. It's the town nearest to Australia and it's only several kilometers from some of our islands in the Torres Strait."

Concerns are also raised about possible exploitation of the Torres Strait Treaty between Australia and PNG, under which Papua New Guineans from 13 villages can move freely across the border and are allowed to fish in Australian waters. Torres Strait Fishing Association president Phillip Ketchell warned that China could use the treaty as a "back door" into the fishery.

Nation-states competing for the "right" to push the world's oceans to biological collapse would be out of wack enough even if other issues were not looming in the background of contested fisheries. And, predictably, there are...

There are also concerns that Beijing will attempt to militarize the outpost, seeking to counterbalance the new US-Australian naval base planned for PNG's Manus Island. Queensland federal MP Warren Entsch said: "Given that we are establishing with Papua New Guinea and America a naval presence on Manus Island, it worries me that there might be other motives for what the Chinese are doing there." China has been accused before of seeking to piggy-back a military presence on its Belt & Road Initiative.

Jeffrey Wall has also warned of China's growing footprint in mega-mining in the mountainous interior of PNG. Earlier this year, the PNG government announced the nationalization of the massive Porgera gold mine, run by a partnership between Canada's Barrick Gold and China's Zijin Mining Group.

As ever, the indigenous people of the Torres Strait, whose island homelands are now bisected by the international border and are set to become strategic in the geopolitical chess game, have been entirely left out of the equation by all the Great Powers.

China formally arrests Australian journalist

China formally arrested Australian journalist Cheng Lei on Feb. 5 "on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas." The formal arrest comes six months after Lei was first taken into custody under controversial Chinese detention laws.

Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne issued a statement announcing the formal arrest, noting that "[t]he Australian Government has raised its serious concerns about Ms Cheng’s detention regularly at senior levels, including about her welfare and conditions of detention."

Cheng worked for Beijing-based state-owned English news outlet CGTN as a news anchor between 2012 and 2020. Details about the activities leading to her arrest are largely unavailable. At a press conference, a spokesperson for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declined to communicate the name of the country Lei is suspected of supplying state secrets to, and whether her family's request to provide access to her will be granted.

Cheng was detained by Chinese authorities in August under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL), provided for by China's Criminal Procedure Law. Persons detained under RSDL can be held for up to six months without charges or trial. They can be restricted from accessing lawyers, have their location withheld, and be subjected to intense interrogation. (Jurist)