China's President Xi Jinping Tuesday committed to an Antarctic cooperation deal with Australia, while fulfilling a long-held dream to visit the nation's smallest state in a trip which included a close encounter with a Tasmanian devil.
Xi backed using Australia, particularly Tasmania, as a gateway to the frozen continent in an agreement with Prime Minister Tony Abbott in the state's capital Hobart, where China's Antarctic programme's flagship Xue Long is docked.
The memorandum of understanding also reaffirmed China's vow to respect the icy region as a natural reserve that will not be exploited, while committing the two countries to collaborate on scientific projects.
The deal came three decades after China's first expedition to Antarctica, and follows reports last month of plans to build an airfield there to support its four research stations.
Approximately 30 nations operate permanent research stations in Antarctica including the US, Russia, Australia, Britain, France and Argentina, with Hobart, which is home to the Australian Antarctic Division, a key shipping gateway to the area.
The inking capped a whirlwind trip to the so-called Apple Isle by the Chinese leader, who has visited every other Australian state and territory and joked Monday that he should receive a certificate for his travels across the country.
Tasmanians have been enthusiastic about Xi's visit, with the Chinese leader's picture splashed across the front-page of The Mercury newspaper, which welcomed him in Mandarin and English.
"Your visit to Hobart is a significant step in the relationship between us; one which has been built on a spirit of friendship and mutual respect," it said.
Moved by students' letter
Xi said he chose to visit the southern state following the G20 summit in Brisbane on the weekend after receiving a letter from primary school students in Launceston in the state's north.
"In their letter, they describe Tasmania's unique products and beautiful scenery, they hand-wrote the letter in Chinese," Xi said in his address to the Australian parliament in Canberra Monday.
"And their words have filled me with curiosity." Andy Muller, Scotch Oakburn College's principal, told AFP his students were thrilled about their meeting with the president and that it was "one of the most exciting days of their lives".
"The president invited them to come to China to visit, sightsee and study, and the students are all very motivated to continue with their Chinese and go over there."
Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan were warmly welcomed when they touched down in Hobart and were introduced to three orphaned baby Tasmanian devils, the black, furry native animal named for the state.
Dozens of Xi supporters waving flags and banners also gathered outside the state's government house and at Hobart wharf where the agreement was penned.
Tasmania, which became the sister state of Fujian province in 1980 where Xi previously served as governor, is hoping to cash in on the growing economic clout of China's middle classes through food and wine exports, renewable energy projects, tourism and trade.
The state's Premier Will Hodgman signed four agreements with China in Canberra on Monday which will increase Tasmania's links with the China Development Bank Cooperation, Fijian and Shaanxi provinces and support the development of a wind farm.
Peter Chung, a third-generation Chinese Australian and retired businessman, said Xi's visit would help to put the state on the map. "When I travelled overseas, not many people I met knew where Tasmania was," Chung, who was the president of Tasmania's Chinese Community Association for three decades, told AFP.
"But now, people say -- I know where it is." China is the largest source of international visitors to Tasmania, with a 61% increase in the number of tourists to 20,400 in the year to June, Tourism Tasmania data showed. Xi on Monday signed a historic free-trade agreement in Canberra Monday.