Throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s, the US consistently bought more than 10 percent of Australian exports, but that proportion has steadily declined since the turn of the century.
In 2015, the year before President Trump was elected, America accounted for 7 percent of our exports, but that share has dropped to 5.3 percent, according to the latest figures.
While the US remains Australia’s largest source of foreign investment, it is our fourth largest export market after South Korea and just above India.
In addition, Australia is way down on the list of American trading partners. In 2018 we were the 34th largest source of goods imports into the US. This year we finished third for Japan and sixth for China.
Our largest export to the US is meat (mostly beef) valued at just over $ 3 billion in 2018-19. Our largest export to China that year was iron ore valued at $ 63 billion. Seven of our ten largest export markets are in Asia and account for more than two thirds of our sales abroad.
Our fascination with Trump only underscores the surprising lack of attention we pay to the politics and society of key Asian trading partners.
Many cities and regions in Asia that trade have made vital to our economy are largely unknown to many, if not most, Australians.
Most Australians could call a swag of American states. But how many could half a dozen Chinese provinces or Indian states handle?
It points to something special in Australia’s economic history: Although our economy is increasingly dependent on Asia, our knowledge of the many languages and cultures of the region is alarmingly limited.
Eight years ago, the federal government’s White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century said we had to “broaden and deepen our understanding of Asian cultures and languages” in order to be able to make the most of the emerging opportunities in our fast-growing region.
Some experts estimate that only about 130 Australians with a non-Chinese background can read, write and speak Mandarin at a high level.
University of NSW trade economist Tim Harcourt says the focus of international news in Australia is often more likely to reflect trade patterns “from 50 years ago” than it is today.
“There’s a certain separation between the flow of information and where our main trading partnerships are,” he says.
The disproportionate amount of news and information from the North Atlantic can distort our perception of global events.
Harcourt points out that during the 2008 global financial crisis, Australians were inundated with “the terrible news from Wall Street and London” but received much less information about our Asian trading partners, who did much better in the turmoil. Australia’s trade relations in Asia have helped our economy weather this crisis relatively well.
Another example was the 2014-15 Greek debt crisis, which gained sustained media coverage in Australia even though we don’t trade much with Greece.
Harcourt sees some parallels with international news about the pandemic. Effective health responses to COVID-19 in several Asian countries have received limited attention in Australia.
The pandemic and the new restrictions on foreign media in some countries have made it very difficult for Australian journalists to cover the Asia region. This affects the flow of high quality messages and information.
Nevertheless, Asia’s extraordinary economic and political rise will continue to transform our economy and society.
Australia’s fascination with the US elections is understandable. Why we pay much less attention to Asian politics and society is harder to fathom.
Matt Wade is a senior business writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.
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