Philippa Brant is a Lowy Institute Research Associate.

Prime Minister Gillard's recent trip to China achieved many notable results. Attention has rightly focused on the announcement of the Australia-China strategic partnership and the currency trading arrangements. It was only when reading the PM's press release that I realised this trip was a big deal for AusAID as well.

The Australia-China Development Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Chinese Minister of Commerce Gao Hucheng (pictured) is a milestone in the Australia-China aid relationship. It marks the transition from one of donor-recipient to one of partnership.

As I noted back in October 2011, compared with other 'traditional' donors, Australia has been slow off the mark in engaging with China as a development partner. A number of countries have undertaken 'joint assessments' of aid projects with Chinese counterparts. The UK's Department for International Development and USAID both have dedicated officials in Beijing. And New Zealand scored a coup in late 2012 as the first country to sign an agreement for a trilateral cooperation project with China — in the Cook Islands.

AusAID should be engaging with China as a development actor rather than seeing it purely as a potential competitor. Chinese aid officials are interested in learning about other donor approaches and Australia has a unique position, particularly in the South Pacific. Disaster relief, health, and agriculture are sectors of mutual interest where both countries have considerable expertise.

It is therefore pleasing to see that the first initiative under the new MoU will be a pilot investigation into drug-resistant malaria in Papua New Guinea. Australia provides almost $500 million a year in development assistance to PNG, and China is now a significant investor and aid provider. Finding ways to work together should lead to better outcomes for Papua New Guineans.

MoUs can turn into nothing more than symbolic pieces of paper. They are, however, important in reassuring Chinese partners that the trilateral initiatives have high-level support. The fact that a pilot initiative has already been announced is a good sign that this MoU has teeth.

AusAID officials, particularly those in the China office who have been working towards this for a few years, should be congratulated.

Photo courtesy of @bobjcarr.