(Bloomberg) -- The warming of relations between Beijing and Canberra hangs in the balance this week after a Chinese court delivered a suspended death sentence to Australian writer Yang Hengjun on Monday.

There are now questions over the expected removal of tariffs on Australian wine by the end of March, as well as the plans for a visit to Australia by either Premier Li Qiang or even President Xi Jinping potentially within the next year. 

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Tuesday that his government would respond “very directly” to China, when asked about whether he would consider canceling the invitation to Premier Li.

“We have conveyed, firstly, to China our dismay, our despair, our frustration, but to put it really simply, our outrage at this verdict,” Albanese said in Canberra. “This is a very harsh sentence on Dr. Yang, who is a man who’s not in good health.”

Yang received a suspended death sentence from a Beijing court, which the Australian government said could be commuted to a life sentence after two years, assuming the Australian doesn’t “commit any serious crimes.” The Chinese court found him guilty of espionage.

But some advocates and friends of Yang are calling on Australia to move faster to hit back at China’s sentencing of Yang. Human Rights Watch Australia director Daniela Gavshon said that “stronger action is needed,” adding that simply condemning the writer’s treatment was not sufficient.

“It clearly hasn’t had an impact because this is where we’ve got to,” she said.

Albanese and his government have led the push to restore relations with China after the two countries spent half a decade in a diplomatic deep freeze, which led to the imposition of trade sanctions by Beijing on a range of Australian exports including barley and wine.

Since the center-left Labor government’s election in May 2022, meetings by high-level officials have restarted, tariffs were lifted on barley exports and Australian journalist Cheng Lei was released from custody in October 2023.

Both Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the stabilization of relations had left the Australian government in a position to better advocate for Yang. But Gavshon said it was time for Australia to speak out in public about human rights abuses by the Chinese government. “This shows that the behind closed doors approach isn’t enough,” she said.

“It’s not really about Australia,” Lowy Institute Senior Fellow for East Asia Richard McGregor said of Yang’s sentence. “It’s about any Chinese inside or outside the country, dealing in information about China or being critical of the ruling party,” McGregor said. The Ministry of State Security may have asked for a tougher sentence for Yang and it’s probably indifferent to the countries foreign relations, he said.

The Australian government has summoned the Chinese ambassador Xiao Qian to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to express Canberra’s disapproval at the sentence. So far, no diplomats have been withdrawn from China, and it may still be too early to know the full repercussions of the decision, McGregor said.

“The general approach is not to let smaller issues derail the bigger relationship, but do we consider this a smaller issue?” McGregor said. “It’s got to have some wider reverberations and of course it will affect Australian public opinion as well.”

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