Obama queries Turnbull over China port deal

SYDNEY • United States President Barack Obama has questioned Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the lease of Darwin's port to a Chinese firm with links to China's military.

Expressing concern about Canberra's apparent failure to give Washington, its closest ally, a heads-up, Mr Obama told Mr Turnbull: "Let us know next time."

The subject came up during the two leaders' meeting in Manila yesterday. Mr Turnbull replied that the lease was not a secret and that the US could have read about the deal in Australian media reports.

Mr Obama's remarks, seen as a gentle rebuke by some observers, followed criticism from analysts in both countries that Australia should have consulted the US about the A$506 million (S$511 million) 99-year lease to the privately owned Landbridge Group.

The port in the Northern Territory is close to the base through which US Marines have been rotated for the past three years.

When Mr Obama said he first found out about the deal in the New York Times, Mr Turnbull told him he could have read about it in the Northern Territory News, a famously irreverent newspaper notorious for running crocodile stories. 

Mr Obama then recalled the paper reporting he had taken out "croc insurance" ahead of a visit to Darwin in 2011.  "I did say to him even the US President would struggle to get onto the front page of the NT News without a crocodile angle," Mr Turnbull joked.

Jonathan Pearlman

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2015, with the headline 'Obama queries Turnbull over China port deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe