6 December 2023

Australian Journalist Released from Chinese Prison: A Gesture Amidst Geopolitical Tensions

In a surprising turn of events, Australian journalist Cheng Lei has been released from a Chinese prison after three years. The move is seen by analysts as an attempt to ease tensions ahead of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s impending visit to China. Despite this development, experts assert that the release is unlikely to prompt a shift in Australia’s strategic policies aimed at countering China’s military expansion.

Prime Minister Albanese denied any explicit deal leading to Cheng Lei’s release, asserting that there was no quid pro quo. However, it is noted that Australian officials had raised concerns about Cheng’s detention, citing national security charges, as China sought to solidify an official visit by Albanese—marking the first visit by an Australian leader since 2016.

The release of the business television anchor is perceived as a diplomatic maneuver by China to enhance the atmosphere for the upcoming visit. Richard McGregor, a senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute foreign policy think tank, characterizes it as a “sweetener for the Albanese visit.” He highlights China’s tendency to engage in elaborate diplomatic preparations for such high-profile visits.

Despite the positive development, experts emphasize that there is no direct quid pro quo for Cheng Lei’s release. Richard Maude, Executive Director of Policy at Asia Society Australia, anticipates China to present a list of demands to Australia. However, he believes that Australia will not deviate from its stance, particularly in resisting pressure to step back from participating in what Beijing perceives as a U.S.-led effort to contain China.

Australia’s policies, including its vigilance against China’s actions regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea, are expected to persist. The AUKUS agreement, a defense technology collaboration between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, has caused skepticism about Australia’s reliability as an economic partner, according to China.

While political dialogue has resumed and some Chinese restrictions on Australian exports have been lifted, McGregor warns of a “riskier” phase in the relationship. Australia’s military activities, such as participating in AUKUS, conducting patrols in the West Philippines Sea, and fortifying military camps in northern Australia, contribute to this complexity.

The AUKUS agreement, announced in 2021, has raised doubts about Australia’s economic reliability in the eyes of China. Analysts predict that China may push for a more liberal approach to foreign investment in Australia’s critical minerals industry and seek support to join a Pacific-wide trade pact.

However, Australia is expected to stand firm on policies such as national security screening of foreign investment. Foreign Minister Penny Wong emphasizes the need for exporters to diversify markets, reducing dependence on China as their primary customer.

Former trade minister Craig Emerson, who recently led an Australian delegation to talks in Beijing, notes a shift in tone from both sides, with a lack of provocative language. Scott Morrison, the prime minister during the deterioration of ties in 2020, remains cautious, stating that while some trade sanctions have been lifted, there are still unresolved issues, including laws on foreign investment, espionage, and national security.

In summary, Cheng Lei’s release serves as a diplomatic gesture, potentially paving the way for improved relations between Australia and China. However, the underlying geopolitical tensions and differences in policy stances are expected to persist, making the future of this relationship uncertain.