Reuters International

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivers a speech at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, in Tokyo, Japan, December 18, 2015. REUTERS/Atsushi Tomura/Pool

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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who last month criticised Chinese military deployments in the South China Sea, leads 1,000 business leaders to China next week, hoping to build on a free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries.

Turnbull will hold talks with both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, hoping to capitalise on China's transition from an export-based economy to a major consumer spender, his office said on Friday.

It did not say if the South China Sea would be on the agenda, but China's assertiveness in its claims to most of the waters has raised concerns in the West and among China's neighbours.

Western capitals have criticised China for militarising the South China Sea with the deployment of advanced weaponry there. China says the United States is militarising the region with its frequent patrols.

Turnbull last month called China's military deployments "counterproductive", an unusually forceful rebuke.

China claims most of the South China Sea, where about $5 trillion of ship-borne trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims.

The trade visit - the largest ever by an Australian leader - comes amid a slowing of growth in the Chinese economy, which is crucial for Australian jobs.

The FTA came into effect in December, cutting tariffs across many economic sectors.

"The China-Australia FTA has opened up even more opportunities for trade and engagement between our two countries," Turnbull's office said in a statement.

"As China continues its transition towards a more consumer-led and services-based economy, more and more Australian businesses are finding new markets and new opportunities in China."

A delegation of 15 corporate chief executives from each country will join a round table headed by the Business Council of Australia and the China Development Bank. The prime minister's office declined to name the companies taking part.

As Chinese visitors to Australia rise, Turnbull will also launch a new Tourism Australia promotion in Shanghai.

(Reporting by Jane Wardell; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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