October 20, 2023
SYDNEY – For the past three years, Australia had been anxiously following the fate of Ms Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian journalist detained in China, with little detail about the reasons for her arrest or the prospects of her release.
Suddenly, however, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced on Oct 11, with unrestrained delight, that Ms Cheng had been released and was back in Australia – an announcement that followed years of quiet diplomacy and was welcomed across the country.
Though the details surrounding her imprisonment remain murky – she was ostensibly incarcerated for breaking an embargo by a few minutes after a briefing by Chinese officials – analysts believe the timing of her release is much less of a mystery.
Her walk to freedom has been seen as part of efforts by Beijing to smooth ties ahead of a looming visit by Mr Albanese to China.
He is expected to visit as soon as early November, the first trip to China by an Australian leader since 2016.
The visit will mark the 50th anniversary of a historic trip to China by former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, the first by an Australian prime minister.
Professor James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, said China had provided various sweeteners to Australia ahead of Mr Albanese’s visit, including Ms Cheng’s release and the easing of trade barriers on goods such as hay and timber.
The removal of China’s barley tariffs in August was likely another sweetener, he said, though it was prompted by moves by Canberra to suspend its case over the tariffs at the World Trade Organisation.
“It is a pretty sweetened lead-up to a prime ministerial visit,” he said.
“Beijing wants it to be a successful visit. When Albanese is over there, they don’t want all the questions to be about trade blockages and detentions.”
Ties between Australia and China have been stabilising following a rift sparked by Chinese anger over various moves by Australia in the past six years.
These include foreign interference legislation that was aimed at Beijing, its blocking of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from the roll-out of the nation’s 5G network, and its call for an international inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Amid these frictions, China imposed various apparent punishments, including A$20 billion (S$17.3 billion) worth of sanctions and the detention of Ms Cheng.
Australia’s Trade Minister Don Farrell said in a speech on Wednesday that about A$2 billion in Chinese trade sanctions remained in place.
He said he was “optimistic” that barriers on exports of lobster and meat would be removed soon.
“This government is serious about stabilising and developing Australia’s relationship with China,” he said. “Yes, there are challenges. But collaboration opportunities abound.”
The improvement of ties between China and Australia followed the election of Mr Albanese’s Labor party in 2022.
Mr Albanese has not shifted Australia’s policies towards China – he has, for instance, embraced plans to acquire nuclear-powered submarines from the United States and Britain.
But he has adopted less strident rhetoric towards Beijing than the previous Liberal-National coalition government.
A former Australian ambassador to China, Dr Geoff Raby, said on Tuesday that Labor’s change of tone had led to the resumption of high-level contact, which in turn enabled a further thawing of ties.
“The relationship is now likely to be ‘normalised’ following the PM’s visit later this year,” he wrote in The Australian Financial Review.
Still, there remain some sticking points. Canberra is pressing for the release of another Chinese-Australian, writer Yang Hengjun, who has been detained for more than four years on espionage charges, and for an end to the remaining sanctions.
Mr Albanese said on Tuesday that he was confident China’s wine sanctions would be lifted, noting an incident at the Shangri-La Dialogue dinner in Singapore in June, where Australian wine was served to him, along with senior ministers from the United States, Britain, China and Singapore.
“It was an opportunity for me to make the point that everyone was enjoying the product and that people in Beijing and Shanghai would enjoy it as well,” he told reporters.
Prof Laurenceson said China appeared to want to improve ties with Australia as a way to show the world that it can still conduct “successful relations with the West and with a staunch ally of the US”.
He said China was also keen to ensure that the steady flow of Australian exports such as iron ore and lithium continues.
Another China expert, Professor David Goodman from the University of Sydney, expressed a similar view, noting that Ms Cheng’s release appeared to be a goodwill gesture ahead of a visit by Mr Albanese. But it may also have been motivated by China’s interests in meeting its industrial and energy needs.
But observers are doubtful that further sweeteners will be offered ahead of Mr Albanese’s expected visit in the coming weeks.
“I expect Beijing would feel that it has done more than enough to make the visit a success,” Prof Laurenceson said.