A San Diego congressman on Thursday introduced legislation to block any effort by the Port of Long Beach to lease property to one of its fastest-growing tenants, a Chinese state-owned steamship line.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) said he hopes to torpedo the city’s plan to bulldoze its shuttered naval station, build a 145-acre cargo terminal on the land and lease it to the China Ocean Shipping Co., or Cosco. The company has been a tenant at the port since 1981.
“My legislation will prevent a Communist Chinese beachhead at the naval station,” Hunter said.
Exasperated port officials, who had expected to receive a final sign-off on the project from the Navy within weeks, said the introduction of the bill was “disturbing.”
Mayor Beverly O’Neill lashed out at Hunter and another opponent of the lease, Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-San Diego), saying their concerns over the company are “ludicrous.”
The two lawmakers “were vocal and instrumental in pushing for closure of our naval shipyard, which was a vitally important part of Long Beach’s economy for decades. Now they’re working against our economic recovery,” O’Neill said in a statement. “To single out our reuse here simply because Cosco uses our port is hypocritical and disingenuous.”
Ravaged by the Pentagon’s decision to close Long Beach’s two Navy facilities and by waves of defense industry layoffs in the early 1990s, city officials had staked their hopes for an economic recovery on the expansion of the port, already the nation’s busiest.
After a series of hearings and an environmental review, city officials decided to transfer the property, once they received the title, to the port. Port officials, who planned to use the land to build more cargo terminal space, solicited offers from other potential tenants, but said they moved ahead with plans to lease to Cosco because it was the only company that expressed interest.
The port would spend $200 million to build the terminal that Cosco would lease for a minimum of $14.5 million a year.
The company, based in Beijing but with a North American headquarters in Secaucus, N.J., now handles cargo on 80-acres of leased space at the Long Beach port. Cosco officials say they need to expand to accommodate increasing numbers of cargo containers as Pacific Rim trade blossoms.
Port officials first sought Cosco’s business just weeks after U.S.-China relations were normalized in 1979. Now Hunter and other critics have voiced concern that the planned expansion could be a breach of national security because Customs Service agents last year discovered a load of Chinese-made assault rifles being smuggled into Oakland on a Cosco ship. But federal prosecutors said no evidence has emerged to show the company knew the contraband was aboard.
Hunter suggested his bill could be the beginning of a larger push to halt U.S. trade with China.
“They’ve got some problems and we frankly don’t need them anymore,” said a Hunter spokesman. “If Hunter could get rid of them at all the ports, he would.”