The Prime Minister’s just-completed circus trip to China was the biggest, the best and — to borrow the tagline from the Roger Moore Bond flick The Spy Who Loved Me — it was Gillard and beyond. And she kept telling us just how big it was — a little guilt about her previous neglect of China?

The pity is that Gillard didn’t mount a trip of this scope when she visited in 2011. This time around she brought heavyweight politicians (the Chinese would have been pleased to get a good look at Labor’s likely next leader Bill Shorten), and the relatively extensive itinerary sent the message the Chinese want: Australia is engaged and interested, and we want more. Gillard is winging her way home now, after five days in the Middle Kingdom.

China ambassador Frances Adamson and her team pulled it of organisationally without any hitches. The early stumbles — the first of three major speeches missed its mark, the second in Shanghai was dull and forgettable — will be forgotten after her triumph in elevating Australia’s formal contact with the country with whose destiny we are inextricably and increasingly linked to a yearly summit.

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It’s an idea that has been pushed by diplomats for years and comes after Australia’s relationship with China has been buffeted and damaged in recent years. Gillard’s failure to take responsibility for the relationship from the day she knifed her boss was certainly a contributing factor. All in all, this trip was a solid win.

The visit was the most heavyweight parliamentary delegation (one PM, three cabinet ministers in Bob Carr, Craig Emerson and Bill Shorten, countless bag-carriers and flunkies) to China. Carr has seemed a bit surplus to requirements up until now, but today he’s meeting China’s top two foreign affairs officials. Carr might have been better off on his own trip later on to spread the love more evenly, but one suspects he did not have much say in the matter (he arrived in Bo’ao separately to the PM on Friday and did not dodge the opening press conference, as I might have suggested on Monday).

It was a big trip for Gillard, too. Her first visit in April 2011 was Beijing-only and embarrassingly short, especially in light of the two-year wait for a second visit. She was nervous — as you would be in the wake of Hurricane Kevin, who left a trail of damage in Beijing during his tenure. Two years have improved her grasp of geopolitics and presentation skills generally, but the podium is not her natural habitat.

“Gillard has finally looked as though she is serious about Australia’s most important foreign relationship.”

Gillard saved the best for last — and indeed was so determined to try to keep the news in the can until yesterday that those in her office almost shot themselves in the foot. Here’s the deal: as well as the annual leaders’ summit there will be a yearly strategic economic dialogue between Australia’s treasurer and the head of China’s top economic ministry, the National Development and Reform Commission.

This deal moves Australia up a good peg in the relationship ladder into the very top rank. Still, the deal does not quite give us the annual in-country (China and Australia in alternate years) talks that China and the US have at a number of levels (although not at the leader level). Rather, this new deal formalises something that already by and large happens by dint of meetings on the sidelines of G20/APEC and the like. The new dialogue is overdue and goes some way to repair the “she’ll be right attitude” of the past five years, relying on ad hoc meetings to send the types of messages only PMs can send.

But Australia’s success in building the people-to-people relationships at the top levels of government and business will be the real test of whether this means much. To that end, it’s worth noting the initial flush of success for the government-free Sino-Australian Business Initiative organised by Andrew Forrest at Bo’ao.

Having not made it to meet China’s Education Minister, Gillard made some amends yesterday with a high school visit and dinner with tertiary education representatives. It’s a vital cog in the Australia-China relationship, with the $16 billion international student market our second biggest export item — the iron ore of our services sector. China represents about 25% of the market, and Chinese numbers have  been on the decline for the past three years. This has hit some universities hard, although the situation is showing signs of reversing with numbers appearing to rise this year. We can’t get complacent about this again.

Almost three years into her prime ministership, Gillard has finally looked as though she is serious about Australia’s most important foreign relationship. She had recklessly allowed things to drift both politically and economically with nil movement on a Free Trade Agreement. There are ethical concerns too, due to the government’s refusal to actively agitate on behalf of imprisoned Chinese-Australians Matthew Ng, Charlotte Chou and Du Zuying — and perhaps others the government wont tell us about. They have been denied justice and liberty and had the Chinese government sign of on the theft of their assets by Communist Party officials and their friends. These people have had their families shattered. Australian citizens deserve better.

While the concrete result of this trip has been most encouraging, it’s making our new “strategic partnership” work for us that’s the real test. The Chinese remain wary about Australian attitude to their investments, particularly in agriculture, despite the PM’s clear message that it is welcome. Australian companies remain blocked from entering many Chinese sectors and business remains risky and unprotected by the rule of law. The hard work starts now.

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