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Australian Prime Minister Prepares for Crucial China Visit

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd heads to Beijing on Wednesday, where his main focus will be to consolidate his country's burgeoning trade with China, which has a massive demand for Australian minerals. Mr. Rudd also is expected to question Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao over Tibet during his four-day visit. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Australian mining companies often refer to trade with China as a once-in-a-century bonanza.

Soaring demand has helped Australia enjoy unprecedented w ealth and record low unemployment.Tim Harcourt, an economist at the Australian Trade Commission, says the country's abundant coal, uranium and natural gas are helping power China's economic transformation.

"China is soon going to be our number one trading partner. It's soon to overtake Japan for goods and services, so it's gone a lot quicker than we thought. Most economists thought it would be the number one by 2011, 2012 but looks like in the Olympic year it's going to get there, it's going to get gold," said Harcourt.

Australia's trade with China is worth more than $46 billion. The mining industry accounts for about two-thirds of that.

Tony Maher, the national president of one of Australia's biggest trade unions, the CFMEU, says Chinese demand for minerals seems insatiable.

"It's transforming the world economy, not only ours. We've long been reliant on mineral export income in this country," said Maher. "There have been previous booms in other parts of the world but this one looks long and sustained and it's not only our country but a lot of the world's depending on it."

Kevin Rudd is a keen student of Chinese politics and, unusually for a world leader, is fluent in Mandarin.

He arrives in Beijing Wednesday, at the end of a 17-day world tour that included stops in Washington and Brussels. The former diplomat had hoped to renew U.S. and European interest in a global free trade deal, but their enthusiasm for negotiations at the World Trade Organization has been rather muted.

Brett Williams, an international law expert at the University of Sydney, thinks Australia should urge China to do more to promote freer trade.

"Perhaps Rudd may say to the Chinese that we look to them for leadership in some ways," said Williams. "They've gone through a fantastic process of trade liberalization and we're expecting them to continue doing that and to try to get the rest of the WTO members to do it as well and to impress on them that their input in the WTO really is going to make a difference."

Mr. Rudd has promised to raise concerns about human rights during his time in China. His government called on Beijing to engage in dialogue with the Dalai Lama over Tibet.

Beijing recently suppressed anti-China riots in Tibet, a region it has controlled for nearly 60 years. But around the world, human rights activists are calling for China to improve its rights record. Thousands of Tibet supporters have demonstrated along the routes of the Olympic Flame, which is making its way around the world before going to Beijing for the start of the Summer Games in August.

Jocelyn Chey, a former Australian diplomat who specialized in relations with China, thinks Mr. Rudd will tread very carefully as he broaches the sensitive issue of human rights.

"I'm certain he will, particularly in this Olympic year but he will also as prime minister be looking at the big picture. He has a lot to tell the Chinese about the Australian approach to conduct of international relations," said Chey. "So, while you will have a broad-brush approach I wouldn't expect him to take up particular cases."

That is likely to mean no overtly strong criticism over Tibet.

The visit by Mr. Rudd, who served at the Australian embassy in Beijing 25 years ago, has attracted enormous interest in China. His office has received hundreds of requests for interviews from the Chinese media. From politicians to iron ore, it seems that China is eager for what Australia has to offer.