Two Australian journalists yesterday fled China under diplomatic protection, fearing arrest as political pawns in the rapidly worsening relationship between Canberra and Beijing. Their dramatic overnight exit came following days of secret wrangling that had seen both men holed up in Australia's diplomatic missions to escape the clutches of China's feared security police. Bill Birtles and Michael Smith had to consent to questioning before they were allowed to leave China, shepherded out of the country on a late-night flight by Australian diplomats. Both men were quizzed about fellow Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who has been detained since last month. China confirmed the two men had been questioned, but insisted the move had been legitimate.