"I don't think the Chinese understand the criticism and get very hurt by it," he said.
Rudd says the critical issue is that Chinese investment makes sense for both parties.
"There are huge opportunities (for Australia) for direct sales into the Chinese market. It takes two to tango for the Chinese," he told CNN.
Still, the perception lingers that Australia has only nailed the basics for a strategic, profitable relationship with China, ruled by a party it is politely forbidden to criticize.
Differences on human rights issues -- in particular the fate of the Falun Gong, the status of Tibet and the way the Chinese government deals more generally with dissent -- have often stymied relations.
In 2008, Rudd looked to new regional diplomatic architecture to bridge the divide between economic necessity and understanding. However, his successor, Julia Gillard, appears to have ditched the idea of an Asia Pacific Community in which the United States, Japan, China, Russia and Australia commune on political, economic and security matters in favor of a reinvigorated East Asia Summit, in which the United States and Russia have observer status.
Rudd is sanguine about the impact of this on Australia -- China economic relations.
"The mechanism is less important than the substance," he said. "If you look at the level of economic engagement, it is already substantial.
"The next step will hang on two things - the implementation of China's new growth model which will be implemented by the new leadership. The second is Australia's corporate leadership. Government can't do everything," he said.
As Australia grapples with how best to deepen engagement, China looks to hit 7.5% growth this year. The International Monetary Fund predicts China will grow 7.8% this year and hit 8.2% growth in 2013.
Harcourt is upbeat.
"We are hugging the panda," he said. "Ultimately China needs Australia for its food and energy needs. And increasingly it's looking to Australia for professional services to urbanize its population and bring more people into the middle class.
"And for Australia that means China will be a key player," he said, before adding "but not only player."