Foreign Minister Bob Carr has opened Australia's fourth diplomatic mission in mainland China, in the western metropolis of Chengdu, saying it will provide a launching pad into the region's fast-paced growth.
The minister said China's fastest growing cities, and seven of the top eight provinces, were situated inland, and the consulate in Chengdu would help "press Australian businesses into western China", particularly as the bilateral economic relationship moved beyond resources-dominated trade.
"The fact is that this is a relationship between Australia and the new urbanised China," he said. "As hundreds of millions more Chinese gravitate to these great cities there will be a need for Australian goods and services."
But Senator Carr repeated a warning from his department from a briefing paper in April that said it was concerned business disputes had resulted in criminal charges, which was "putting considerable strain on the bilateral relationship".
"With the rising level of trade in the two countries, there's probably no surprise that the number of commercial disputes has been rising and we want to provide guidance on how best to manage this challenge," Senator Carr said.
High-profile cases involving jailed Australian business people including Du Zuying, Charlotte Chou and Matthew Ng have tended to involve murky disputes with their often powerful local business partners.
Australia's ambassador to China, Frances Adamson, said the commercial disputes initiative was not an indication of a large increase in incidents.
"But the best way we can help is to be on the front foot," she said. "A couple of things have crossed my desk but nothing more."
Chinese negotiators have also been driving a hard bargain by demanding Australia relax investment restrictions before it considers entering a free trade agreement.
But Senator Carr said he did not understand why Chinese would find it difficult to invest in Australia. "I can't think of any reason that should be the case," he said, adding he also could not see the justification for many Australians to be wary of Chinese foreign investment, as was suggested by a recent Lowy Institute poll.
The consulate in Chengdu will be headed up by Nancy Gordon. It will join Australia's other diplomatic missions in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.