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Australia and China: Committing to an Enduring Partnership

17 Aug 2016
By Professor Peter Drysdale AO FAIIA and Zhang Xiaoqiang
China-Aus. Photo Credit: Chris Phutully (Wikimedia Commons) Creative Commons.

The Australia-China partnership can be a powerful force for the stability and prosperity of the region and for the global system. Nurtured carefully and imaginatively, this deeper partnership could become one of the most strategically vital and productive bilateral relationships that either country has in the world.

Australia and China, though they are two vastly different nations, already have a huge and joint political, economic and social investment in the success of their bilateral relationship.

Their unique partnership stems from a deep alignment of interests that, short of highly negative policy choices, cannot easily be undone. China is big, it is highly integrated into the world economy, and it is not about to go away. Australia is a secure source of raw materials for all of East Asia including China, it has an alliance relationship with the United States and it is enmeshed with Asia.

The Australia–China relationship will undergo a huge change over the coming decade. The scale and complexity of the relationship is growing because of the increased role of services and investment, as well as its political and security dimensions.

China has for some years been Australia’s largest trading partner and one of its most important bilateral relationships. Australia’s economic growth and continued rising living standards are strongly linked to China’s economic success.

In the Chinese policy community, there is wide understanding and clear acknowledgement of the economic and political advantages of open, secure and competitive access to Australian raw materials.

As China’s economy matures and its middle class expands, China is also enjoying the added dividend of access to Australian agriculture, institutions and services—everything from infant formula to vitamins, butter to beef, education to tourism, as well as advanced science, technology and research capabilities. Australia’s open society provides Chinese investments with security in a stable and well-functioning market economy that guarantees transparent recourse to political, legal and regulatory institutions.

These new avenues of commercial exchange are a two-way street. Both Australia and China gain from growing and diversifying their economic relationship through new flows of tourists, students, investors and migrants. Despite recent slowdowns, China will remain a key driver of global growth. If China’s reform agenda succeeds, it can achieve annual GDP growth of around 6 per cent a year over the next 10 years.

The impact of China’s growth on Australia over the next 10 years will be very different from in the past. Australia will no longer only be a remote supplier of raw materials. It should be a palpable and distinctive presence in Chinese daily life, particularly for the urban middle classes.

Australia is economically enmeshed with East Asia, giving it a high stake in China’s success. It also has strong economic, cultural and strategic links to the United States, and therefore a compelling interest in a positive relationship between the United States and China.

Australia’s geopolitical and geo-economic position and its multicultural society are thus unique assets in shaping China’s links with the West.

Chinese and Australian prosperity has depended on the liberal, rules-based global economic system. Both countries have a compelling interest in the successful adaptation of the institutions of global governance to the economic and security challenges of the 21st century. A deeper partnership between China and Australia can be a powerful force for the strengthening and developing of these institutions. Australia’s longstanding commitment to global institutions, its deep engagement with Asia and its historical ties with Europe and North America are complementary to China’s status as a major economic power and its declared willingness to help reform and strengthen the regional and global frameworks of cooperation and governance.

China is shifting its growth drivers from investment, exports and heavy industry to consumption, innovation and services. China’s growth slowdown does not threaten this transformation; it is a symptom of it.

This transformation will lead to fast growth in trade between Australia and China in real terms, much of it in services. Even in a pessimistic scenario, in which average Chinese growth is below 5 per cent over the next 10 years, estimates suggest that Australian exports to China would still grow by 28 per cent and Chinese exports to Australia by 20 per cent. The biggest gains, however, would be realised if Australia and China work to implement supply-side reforms. If this reform agenda is executed successfully, Australian exports to China will grow by 120 per cent in real terms, and Chinese exports to Australia by 44 per cent.

The structural changes in the Chinese economy presage a change in the structure of trade. The profound complementarity stemming from Australia’s energy and resource abundance and China’s industrialisation will remain a key pillar of the relationship, but will be increasingly augmented by services such as education and tourism, with inbound tourism from China set to treble by 2025.

There is every reason to believe that the Australia–China relationship will become more, not less, important to both countries as the Chinese economy continues to change and upgrade.

The need for an upgraded policy framework is broadly accepted in both countries.

That will be a complex task: it will require building a new set of national capabilities in both countries.

In the 1980s, Australia and China established what they called a “model relationship” between two economies with different political and social systems and at different stages of development. Now both countries need to commit to a partnership for change.

We present a major independent report on how a partnership for change might be fashioned by the governments and people of our two countries. It draws on the expertise, wisdom and common sentiments across governments, business leaderships, research communities and public leaders. It is an unprecedented endeavour at working together in thinking about the choices we make for the future.

The Australia–China relationship represents an impressive achievement but with wisdom it can be taken to a wholly new level. While fully respectful of each other’s existing relationships, the new partnership can be a powerful force for the stability and prosperity of the region, and for the global system. It can serve as a principal vector of Australian and Chinese engagement within a rapidly changing world. Nurtured carefully and imaginatively, this deeper partnership could become one of the most strategically vital and productive bilateral relationships that either country has in the world.

Peter Drysdale is head of the East Asia Bureau of Economic Research in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. Zhang Xiaoqiang is executive vice chairman and CEO of the China Center for International Economic Exchanges and former vice chairman of China’s National Development Reform Commission. They are lead authors of a major Australia-China Joint Economic Report: Partnership for Change that was presented to the Prime Minister of Australia and the Premier of China and released publicly earlier this week.

This article was originally published on East Asia Forum on 14 August and is republished with permission.