Australia and China’s relationship has become a fascinating representation of the delicate balancing act between politics, economics and sovereignty that this modern age of globalisation presents to nations. And with no Western country more dependent on trade with China than Australia, this particular balance holds great intrigue.
To date, Australia has managed to strike a fine balance with the Middle Kingdom. It negotiated the ‘most favoured nation’ clause into the China Australia Free Trade Agreement and was a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Yet it has deviated from China’s influence in several ways. Australia has remained firmly in the US camp for defence-related policies, it is yet to support President Xi’s pet Belt & Road project and is even exploring alternatives with China foes the US, Japan and India. It has been overtly distrustful of Huawei due to national security concerns, and its recent claims of Chinese espionage have prompted Chinese state media to call Australia an ‘anti-China pioneer’.
Regardless, Australia’s continued prosperity is becoming increasingly dependent on its relationship with China. Australian exports to China grew 25% last year to US$86 billion accounting for 29.6% of exports, with Japan being the next most important market at 12%. China is Australia’s highest-spending source of students and tourists. Australia has also been the world’s second largest recipient of Chinese investment since 2007, accounting for more than $90 billion of accumulated investment. In short, virtually every Australian is impacted by the flow of trade, people and investment from their Asian neighbour.
There are few better barometers to gauge the continued opportunities and threats in this relationship than the diverse range of Australian businesses on the ground in China and those with strong trade relationships. China Skinny was honoured to work with Austcham on the 2018 Westpac Australia-China Business Sentiment Survey which launched in Sydney yesterday.
161 businesses generously gave their time and information to help Australia understand the direction of its connection with China, identifying positive areas, and those that need work. The resulting report is full of fascinating insights from challenges, risks and competition to macro influences impacting Australian businesses in China.
Australian business sentiment was remarkably upbeat. 78% were positive about the next twelve months – higher than similar surveys of American, European, British and Canadian businesses – increasing to 83% for the 5-year outlook. This positive sentiment was particularly striking given the survey was conducted in November and December last year, a time when the China-Australian bilateral relationship was turning awry.
For 58% of respondents, China revenue outpaced other markets. These results have contributed to over half of businesses planning to increase their investment in China this year – with more investing than in 2017 and at a greater rate than their American cousins.
Arguably the most concerning finding from the survey was engagement of digital platforms which have become an important channel for B2C and B2B segments in China. Whilst we found the majority of respondents recognised innovation in technology, media and communications as the number 1 trend shaping businesses in China for the next 3-5 years, just 16% currently have a detailed China digital/ecommerce strategy in place. Those who did were 12% more likely to turn a profit in China and were 18% more likely to see China revenue outpace other markets.
The beautifully presented report (thanks Charlotte, Kate and Stephanie) delivers a valuable perspective into the overall health and opportunities for Australian businesses in China. It also provides a benchmark for your own performance – not just as an Australian business, but any foreign firm trading with China. Download your free copy here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.