HOBART (AFP) - 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 that included a close encounter with a Tasmanian devil.
Mr 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.
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.
Mr Xi signed a historic free-trade agreement in Canberra on Monday.