Australia complains to Chinese embassy over ‘ham-fisted’ attempt at blocking view of Cheng Lei at event

<span>Chinese officials tried to block the view of the formerly detained journalist Cheng Lei at an event at Parliament House. </span><span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Chinese officials tried to block the view of the formerly detained journalist Cheng Lei at an event at Parliament House. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The Australian government has formally complained to the Chinese embassy over “ham-fisted” attempts by its officials to block the view of the formerly detained Australian journalist Cheng Lei during an event inside Parliament House.

The incident, which occurred during a signing ceremony with the visiting Chinese premier Li Qiang, has drawn condemnation from Australian MPs who branded the embassy officials’ actions as “counterproductive” and “inappropriate”.

Li was in Western Australia on Tuesday for the fourth day of a visit to Australia that was meant to showcase the stabilisation of the diplomatic and trade relationship after years of turbulence.

But in a further cloud over the visit, the Australian government issued a statement late on Tuesday raising “grave concern” at “dangerous and illegal actions by China’s vessels against Philippine vessels” in the South China Sea the previous day.

“This is an escalation in a pattern of deeply concerning and destabilising behaviour by China,” the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s statement said.

“This conduct endangers peace and security in the region, threatens lives and livelihoods, and creates risks of miscalculation and escalation.”

A signing ceremony in Canberra on Monday was overshadowed by an awkward encounter between two Chinese embassy officials and Cheng, who had been detained in China in 2020 on ill-defined national security-related accusations before finally being released late last year.

Related: Chinese premier Li Qiang’s Australia visit overshadowed by officials’ apparent attempt to block Cheng Lei’s view at event

Cheng, attending the event in her capacity as a presenter and reporter for Sky News Australia, sat with fellow Australian journalists in the seats set aside for media representatives in the main committee room of Parliament House.

As the agreements were being signed, two Chinese embassy officials stood in a position immediately in front of Cheng, appearing to block her from being visible to the cameras positioned on that side of the room.

Australian officials repeatedly asked the Chinese embassy officials to move from blocking the view of journalists, initially politely.

After these requests were rebuffed, a fellow Australian journalist offered to swap seats with Cheng, resulting in her moving two seats to the right.

When one of the embassy officials appeared to move around to try to get close to Cheng, Australian officials blocked the path.

The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, demanded that Anthony Albanese “grow a backbone and stand up for our country”, though the prime minister had already unequivocally denounced Chinese embassy officials for “ham-fisted” conduct.

In an interview on Tuesday, Albanese confirmed that Australian officials had followed up with the Chinese embassy “to express our concern” over the “clumsy” incident.

“When you look at the footage, it was pretty clumsy attempt, frankly, by a couple of people to stand in between where the cameras were and where Cheng Lei was sitting,” Albanese told ABC Perth Breakfast.

The prime minister described Cheng as “a very decent human being and a very professional journalist”.

He said there “should be no impediments to Australian journalists going about their job and we’ve made that clear to the Chinese embassy”.

Hours later, Dutton said Albanese should be prepared to “call out bad behaviour”. Dutton said he had raised the “very regrettable incident” during his own meeting with China’s premier in Canberra late on Monday.

Dutton said he was “very pleased to hear that the government’s raised that with the Chinese embassy because it’s completely unacceptable in our free society for that sort of conduct to take place”.

The foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, rebuked Dutton for focusing on “a domestic political fight”.

Wong said Albanese had raised the matter directly with Li in Perth on Tuesday because “freedom of the press is very important to Australia”.

“I have to say the prime minister and I understand the importance of standing up for Cheng Lei – that’s why we worked for two years to secure her return home,” Wong told ABC Radio National.

In a reference to the former Coalition government’s diplomatic rupture with China, Wong added: “Australia has tried it Mr Dutton’s way. You know, it got us nowhere.”

The Albanese government has worked to “stabilise” Australia’s relationship with its largest trading partner over the past two years, but insists it has not given ground on policy matters and the two sides will continue to “disagree where we must”.

Related: ‘Thanks for the free rent’: Cheng Lei jokes about China detention in comedy debut

Guardian Australia contacted the Chinese embassy twice on Monday and a third time on Tuesday seeking comment on the incident, but it has yet to respond.

The opposition’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Simon Birmingham, told Sky News the embassy “should think long and hard about the fact that this type of distraction caused by inappropriate conduct on their behalf is counterproductive”.