The “heartbreaking” plight of detained Australian Cheng Lei in Australia has politics split ahead of an impending Prime Ministerial visit.

Australia’s relationship with China is in the slow process of repairing after years of diplomatic riffs, with restrictions on barley and Chinese travel the latest to be rolled back, and wide expectations tariffs on Australian wine will soon be dropped.

Anthony Albanese has accepted an open invitation to visit China this year, but as a date remains to be fixed, a sticking point remains the ongoing detention of Ms Lei.

The Chinese-born Australian, who has spent three years detained in China, penned an open letter to mark the anniversary this weekend, writing lovingly of Australia and missing nature and the sunshine.

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham on Saturday cautioned the Prime Minister against visiting China until the journalist was freed.

“The government needs to be confident that it‘s making real advances and significant advances before it commits to a visit,” Senator Birmingham said.

Mr Albanese on Saturday said while he would continue to raise her case, her release from detention wouldn’t be a condition on him visiting Beijing.

“This issue should be resolved; this should be resolved by Cheng Lei not being kept in detention in the way that she has,” he said.

On Sunday, Trade Minister Don Farrell backed Mr Albanese in, saying Australia’s relationship with China wasn’t “transactional”.

He said he wouldn’t be taking advice on dealings with China from Senator Birmingham.

“Simon’s a nice guy, but when he was trade minister he had no communication with the Chinese government. In fact when he rang to complain about the tariffs on wine, they didn’t pick up the phone,” Senator Farrell told Sky News.

“We’ve engaged with the Chinese government, we’ve continued to maintain our position of national security and national interest. The way you solve these problems … is through discussion and dialogue.

“The situation for Cheng Lei is a heartbreaking situation, but every time I meet with or discuss matters with my counterpart, I raise the issue. I know the Foreign Minister does and the Prime Minister does.

“We’re not into a transactional relationship here with the Chinese … I fully support the Prime Minister in his plans to hopefully sometime this year visit China.”

Deputy Liberal Leader Sussan Ley, describing Ms Lei’s latest statement as “heartbreaking”, said while she wouldn’t tell Mr Albanese what to do when it concerned his travel plans, she hoped he would take Ms Lei’s ongoing detention into account.

“The comments that Simon Birmingham made underscore the real seriousness of the detention of Cheng Lei, and I know that everyone … just appreciates how awful it is to be separated from your children,” Ms Ley told Sky News.

“I absolutely call on the Chinese Communist Party to release Cheng Lei.

“I hope (Mr Albanese) takes it into account. It underscores the seriousness of the issue. It really does need to be elevated and it is really, really important that it is addressed.”

Read related topics:Anthony AlbaneseChina


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