Via Michael West comes the WTF of the day amid intense competition:
This is the story the Murdoch press buried. Investigative reporter, Anthony Klan, defected from The Australian newspaper after News Corp bosses muzzled his investigations, including this expose into secret Chinese plans to establish a mega-pilot training facility on an Australian airforce training facility.
Virgin Australia may have misled all levels of Australian government and has made dubious public claims about the true identity of its shadowy Chinese partners in its secretive proposal to take control of the nation’s biggest military pilot school, at an RAAF training facility in Tamworth NSW.
It can be revealed that the nation’s second biggest airline failed to inform the NSW Government, the Federal Government, the English speaking media – and even Tamworth council – about any foreign involvement in its proposal whatsoever, despite that mega-project being “certified” by the Chinese Communist Party a year ago.
…National security experts, including Swinburne University of Technology Professor John Fitzgerald, have described Virgin Australia’s secretive push in Tamworth as extremely concerning.
They warn the proposal appears to be a re-run of the highly controversial 2015 deal whereby the Chinese Communist Party-linked Landbridge Group was granted a 99-year lease over the Port of Darwin, a move which drew an angry rebuke from then US President Barrack Obama.
Virgin Australia, which is listed on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) is overwhelmingly foreign-owned. Chinese entities owned at least 42 per cent of the airline at the end of last financial year. Serious concerns about Virgin’s Tamworth mega-school proposal – including that it appeared to be secretly planning to take control of the facility with two highly questionable Chinese conglomerates – were first raised on the morning of March 22 this year, in an article which appeared on The Australian newspaper’s website (but not in print).
…Searches of company databases in Australia and Hong Kong reveal that Virgin Australia’s partners in its plans to gain control of the current Tamworth RAAF training facility are Chinese conglomerate HNA Group – which has close links to the Chinese Communist Party – and Winbright Overseas Investment Limited.
Winbright Overseas Investment Limited is a company domiciled in the British Virgin Islands, a prominent tax haven, and is an arm of the shadowy Chinese conglomerate the Beijing Winbright Investment Co. Virgin Australia has repeatedly, strenuously, denied having any involvement whatsoever with Winbright.
HNA Group and the Chinese Communist Party
HNA Group, one of Virgin Australia’s two key partners in the Tamworth proposal, is a highly controversial Chinese conglomerate which owns Hainan Airlines, along with a mixed-bag of other investments.
“HNA’s ownership structure is so opaque that some other market regulators have acted to prevent its involvement in acquisitions and mergers,” Professor Fitzgerald said.
“It is closely bound up with the CCP party state and acts on the party’s instructions. “The firm and its private foundation are heavily involved in ‘donations’ for political influence in the USA and internationally,” he said.
HNA Group, whose chairman and co-founder Wang Jian died mid-last year in unusual circumstances after apparently falling from a wall in France, has also raised serious concerns among governments and security experts around the world, given its opaque structure and its ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
That murkiness has led to a number of groups, such as Bank of America, refusing to do business with it.
Separate from the Tamworth proposal, HNA Group has for several years owned about 20 per cent of the shares in the ASX-listed Virgin Australia. The Virgin stake was part of a global acquisition binge where HNA swooped on $US40 billion worth of acquisitions across six continents in two years.
Professor Fitzgerald said it was remarkable that long-standing connection between HNA Group and Virgin Australia had not yet been properly questioned, given that the serious concerns around HNA Group were well known among security experts.
“Given all this is public information, it has long baffled me that no-one has called Virgin to account for its corporate association with HNA,” Professor Fitzgerald said.
HNA Group is a well-known advocate of Beijing’s so-called Belt and Road global infrastructure roll-out, which is seen by many experts as being used by Beijing to advance its military interests by stealth.
Security experts have raised serious concerns that HNA Group’s current secretive advances on the RAAF facility – which sits adjacent to Tamworth Regional Airport’s large, military-grade runway, just 300km north of Sydney – could form part of Beijing’s clandestine military push.
HNA Group and Winbright have repeatedly failed to respond to requests for comment in recent weeks. AIAC has also declined to comment.
Monster proposal at military facility
The site that Virgin Australia, HNA Group and Beijing Winbright Investment Co are seeking to gain control of is a specialised military training facility that for the past three decades has been at the heart of the Australian Defence Force’s aviation training operations.
Since the 1990’s, it has been leased by Tamworth Regional Council to British defence giant BAE Systems, which has been contracted by the Australian Defence Force to train RAAF recruits at the facility.
In 2015 the Australian Defence Force put to tender a new, 25-year multi-billion dollar pilot training contract for that training role, and BAE Systems lost the bid to US defence group Lockheed Martin.
Lockheed Martin will train RAAF pilots from a base in Sale, Victoria. BAE Systems will cease training RAAF pilots in Tamworth by October 31. A September 2015 ABC articleabout BAE Systems losing its ADF contract underscored the specialised military nature of the Tamworth facility.
It quoted MP Mr Joyce who cited other possible tenants for the facility, including the Republic of Singapore Air Force, the Royal Brunei Air Force and the Papua New Guinea Defence Force.
“We are currently in negotiations with them in expanding their use of that facility,” Mr Joyce told the ABC.
“Our base in Tamworth will continue to be used and we’ve had the Prime Minister (Abbott) of Australia over in Singapore talking about Tamworth’s base to the Singaporean Prime Minister, to see what we can do to make that facility more available for them.”
At the same time, BAE’s Director of Aerospace, Steve Drury, highlighted the massive size of the Tamworth military facility, telling the ABC: “The deal we have with Defence is quite large and so I don’t think any one single contract can actually replace it”.
“We’re talking about a combination of possible futures that we can have and we’re also interested in determining whether civil flying training can be done in that facility.”
Mega-school for Chinese pilots, not Australians
Virgin Australia and its two Chinese conglomerate partners are well aware of the size of the Tamworth facility. Under their proposal, they would train 500 students at a time there, making it one of the biggest flight schools in the nation.
Such a mega-facility would be well beyond the needs of Virgin Australia: it currently trains between 10 and 40 pilots at a time at its existing facilities.
However, in a statement – which Virgin Australia has attempted to distance itself from – HNA Group and Winbright have told Chinese language media in Australia that the facility will actually be aimed squarely at Chinese nationals.
“It is aimed at Chinese high school graduates and undergraduate students under 26 years of age from overseas Chinese university students,” that statement quoted HNA Group and Winbright as saying.
Mega school officially “certified” by Chinese Communist Party
Remarkably, that August 2018 press release states that the new mega-school had been “certified” by China’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Administration of China. “This project is the only CAAC-certified airline pilot training program in Australia,” the statement says.
It says Chinese high school and university students could begin training at the flight school after meeting a series of requirements including passing physical examination, psychological tests and a theoretical examination.
After those were met, “a training agreement can be signed with the shipping department and a full flight training at the aviation school.”
“After that, they will be able to sign a labor contract with the shipping division and become an airline pilot,” the statement says.
…Australian Government and authorities had no idea
In response to the March 22 online report in The Australian, and despite Virgin Australia’s repeated claims that it had been “100 per cent transparent” about the Tamworth proposal, federal member for New England Barnaby Joyce said he was shocked and had “no idea”of any foreign involvement.
“I thought it was Virgin,” Mr Joyce said of the proposal, calling on Virgin Australia to come clean. Likewise, the office of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian also denied knowledge of any foreign involvement in the Virgin Australia mega-school project, when contacted by this reporter.
“This is first we’ve heard of it,” spokesman Miles Godfrey said in March.
After repeated requests for information over many days, NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet spokesman Matthew Sun distanced the NSW government from the project entirely, and said it was a matter for Tamworth council.
“Tamworth Regional Council independently made an agreement with Virgin Australia regarding the proposed Tamworth flight school,” Mr Sun said in a written statement.
“There was no NSW Government involvement in that specific decision.”
The statement continued: “Tamworth Regional Council announced its partnership on 31 October 2018”. “Questions regarding the selection and due-due-diligence process undertaken by Council prior to the announcement should be directed to Tamworth Regional Council”.
But remarkably, even Tamworth Regional Council had no idea of the involvement of major foreign conglomerates in Virgin Australia’s proposal before reading about it in that March 22 online article in The Australian.
Days later, Tamworth Regional Council general manager Paul Bennett told local paper The Northern Daily Leader that the council had been in talks with Virgin Australia but it had had “no dealings with Chinese aviation giants Hainan and Winbright Aviation”.
“Any Chinese involvement in the Virgin Australia pilot training school is news to Tamworth Regional Council,” Mr Bennett told The Northern Daily Leader.
“Council had never heard of Winbright Aviation until the story was published in national media [last week].”
Aviation veteran and former chairman of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, Dick Smith, was equally dumbfounded by the revelations.
“Virgin I thought was Aussie-owned but in fact it’s pretty well completely foreign-owned and it looks like it is completely Chinese government controlled,” Mr Smith said. “I am desperately worried about aviation and for this to be done secretly is just unbelievable.”
…That FIRB application is the final step in the process.
The decision to approve or reject the proposal lies solely with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
Hi all, a month ago I resigned from The Australian after 15 years. I had, and have, serious misgivings about the direction that is now being taken. Australia faces unprecedented external threats. To do otherwise, I felt, would be treasonous. DM me with any and all leads. Thanks:)
— Anthony Klan (@Anthony_Klan) June 9, 2019
Much more at the piece. The brazenness is astounding.