China ‘Outrages’ Australia, Warns New Zealand Against AUKUS as Tensions Flare

China’s rocky relationship with Australia — buoyed by the October 2023 release of Chinese-born Australian journalist Cheng Lei — worsened this week following China’s issuing of a suspended death sentence to Yang Hengjun, a 57-year-old Australian writer and father of two. Yang was arrested in Guangzhou on espionage charges in 2019 and has languished in a Chinese jail ever since. Yang says he’s “100 per cent innocent.”

The sentence can reportedly be commuted to life imprisonment after two years if Yang does not commit any “serious crimes” during that period. But that’s cold comfort to Canberra: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Monday that he conveyed to China “outrage at this verdict,” while Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong summoned China’s ambassador in Canberra for a 20-minute “dressing-down,” according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

Canada is no stranger to consular and legal disputes with China. In 2019, a Chinese court overturned Canadian Robert Schellenberg’s initial 15-year sentence for drug smuggling and abruptly issued a death sentence. Schellenberg now awaits a final verdict from China's Supreme People's Court. Ottawa also remains “actively engaged” in the case of Huseyin Celil, a Canadian Uyghur-rights activist jailed in China since 2006.

AUKUS talks roil Beijing

New Zealand also recently drifted into Beijing’s diplomatic crosshairs. The Chinese embassy in Wellington “strongly deplored and firmly opposed” a statement following a ‘2+2’ meeting last week between foreign and defence ministers from Australia and New Zealand. The two allies pledged to increase military integration and expand their participation in “warfighting exercises,” and agreed that AUKUS helped maintain peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.

The Chinese embassy argued otherwise, saying AUKUS would “sow division and confrontation.” Australian officials are expected to travel to New Zealand soon to brief their counterparts on the second pillar of AUKUS, which encompasses advanced military technologies.