Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Is Australia trading too much with China?

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China accounts for close to a quarter of all of Australia’s international trade, and over a third of its exports, including both goods and services. Is Australia trading too much with China and too dependent on the Chinese economy, as a lot of the public commentary would have you believe?

This question has come into sharper focus with the Australian government’s travel ban on China due to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. Australia’s tourism and higher education sectors suddenly lost their largest markets overnight.

A narrative is developing that universities were warned about their overdependence on one international market, and now deserve to pay the price for not diversifying. Two of Australia’s top economists, former Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson and ANU’s Warwick McKibbin, have called on universities to become less reliant on Chinese students, going as far as describing the travel ban as a ‘net positive’ for universities in helping that along.

Hillary Clinton gave similar advice to Australia’s mining sector. Diversifying away from over-reliance on China would seem like the obvious strategy to pursue but if it makes sense, why haven’t Australia’s internationally competitive miners, education providers and the tourism sector not done it already? And is it a good idea to diversify no matter what?

Universities may wish to reduce the number of Chinese students they have, increase students from elsewhere, or both, but will do so only at significant cost. Chinese students are spending family savings and choosing Australian universities over American, British, Japanese and other universities to buy, for the most part, a quality international educational experience. The number of Indian and Southeast Asian students are growing but the biggest growth in the demand for international educational services, and most dynamic market globally is China. It’s the same in tourism and many other sectors of the Australian economy.

Australia policymakers can choose to reduce trade with China by impeding exports and imports, or it can reduce the share of trade with China by intervening in the market to expand trade with other countries, including by diverting trade away from China. President Trump has shown us exactly how that is done. These policy strategies necessarily incur costs. The question for those advocating such a strategy: if one-third of total exports to China is too much exposure, what’s the acceptable or the right share? And what’s the cost of attaining it?

It shouldn’t require too many sophisticated sums to show that de-concentration of Australia’s resource exports on markets in China, Japan and South Korea would come only at huge cost to the mining sector, Australian trade and the Federal coffers. The costs to China, Japan and South Korea on de-concentration in their imports of these materials would be similarly huge.

Australia’s ability to utilise its endowments and take advantage of opportunities internationally should be celebrated and protected. Australia is no stranger to having one country dominate its international trade shares. At its peak in the 1970s and 80s, Japan accounted for roughly the same share of Australia’s trade as China does today. Trade with the United States peaked during World War 2, accounting for 39 per cent of Australian imports and 40 per cent of its exports. The United Kingdom consistently accounted for over half of Australia’s trade, and up to 60 per cent, up until the end of Commonwealth preferences after World War 2.

Instead of intervening in the market to reduce trade shares with China, a far better strategy is to manage these highly interdependent economic relationships and manage the inevitable shocks in their fortunes, some self-inflicted, that occur from time to time.

Universities, farmers and other businesses make commercial decisions based on risk assessment that includes diversification. Diversification is a form of self-insurance and comes with a cost. One of the biggest risks for many businesses is to limit engagement in the huge Chinese economy with a rapidly growing middle class.

The first line of defence against economic shocks from abroad is a well-functioning and robust macroeconomic framework. A flexible exchange rate that acts as a shock absorber, a flexible economy and labour market that adjusts to the large prices changes, a robust social safety net and fiscal and monetary space to cushion and facilitate that adjustment. That’s what saved Australia from recession in the last 28 years…

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