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Gillard balances economics and human rights on China trip

By Jo Ling Kent, CNN
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Australian PM walks tightrope in Beijing
  • Australia's prime minister visits the country's largest trading partner
  • She says she raised human rights concerns with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao
  • Trade relations between China and Australia have been strained by a Rio Tinto affair
  • Julia Gillard
  • Australia
  • Beijing
  • China

Beijing (CNN) -- Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard launched her two-day visit to Beijing on Tuesday, hoping to balance Australia's strong economic ties to China with international pressure to speak out against China's human rights record as the country tightens its grip on activists, dissidents and religious freedom.

Gillard met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing and reviewed the troops in a formal welcome ceremony in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, before a closed-door bilateral meeting with Wen. Gillard is scheduled to meet President Hu Jintao on Wednesday morning.

"I raised our concerns about human rights, ethnic minorities, religious freedom and in relation to the treatment of human rights activists," Gillard told reporters in a press conference later.

"Premier Wen did listen to the concerns that I raised," Gillard said. "He did indicate his view is China has not taken a backward step on human rights."

When asked if she was satisfied with Wen's response, Gillard replied, "What we do is raise our concerns and I've done that very clearly with Premier Wen today."

Gillard's cautious approach to China's human rights record reflects the reality that China is Australia's largest trading partner, overtaking Japan in 2009. China currently purchases more than one-quarter of Australia's exports.

As for the future of Australia's trade relations with China, Gillard was confident.

"People are hungry for our commodities exports, they're hungry for our energy exports so I'm very confident these export industries have a very bright future," she said.

However, trade relations between the two countries have been rocky in the recent past. In 2009, China jailed four employees of Rio Tinto, one of Australia's major mining companies, for taking bribes and stealing state commercial secrets.

The imprisoned included Australian citizen Stern Hu.

In September 2009, the Chinese mining company Non-Ferrous Metal Mining Co. was stopped from acquiring a majority stake in Australian rare earths corporation Lynas, according to state-run media. This occurred shortly after Chinalco attempted to purchase a large stake in Rio Tinto.

Ahead of Gillard's visit, the Chinese media questioned how Australia will balance its relationships with China and the United States. The state-run newspaper Global Times wondered if Australia's strong relations with the United States would pose a problem in its interactions with China.

"For pro-America Australia, how to cosy up to Beijing is a big test," the Global Times opined on Tuesday.

Gillard firmly disagreed.

"This is not an either-or choice. We have our long-standing friendship and alliance with the United States," she said. "They are engaged in our region, they will continue to be engaged in the region. It's their region too. And we can continue to build constructive, cooperative arrangements with China."

CNN's Stan Grant contributed to this report.