--Clyde Russell is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are
By Clyde Russell
LAUNCESTON, Australia, June 30 Australia still
has the Union Jack on its flag and the British queen on its
coins, and was once described as the U.S. "deputy sheriff" in
Asia, but the real dependency relationship is with China.
Nowhere is this reality made more clear than in the
quarterly outlook by the Bureau for Resources and Energy
Economics (BREE), the government agency responsible for
commodity exports and other forecasts.
In the 2002-03 fiscal year, the biggest buyer of Australian
resource and energy exports was Japan, which took 15 percent and
39 percent of the respective totals, according to BREE's
Resources and Energy Quarterly published June 25.
China was the fifth-biggest buyer of resources and sixth for
energy, with a share of 8 percent and 3 percent respectively.
But by the 2012-13 fiscal year, China had accelerated into
the top buyer of resources, with dominant share of 52 percent,
and was second in energy purchases, taking 15 percent, behind
Japan's 41 percent.
It's also likely that in years to come China will replace
Japan as the top buyer of energy exports from Australia, given
that Japan's imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) are probably
at their peak, while China is just starting to ramp its
purchases of the super-chilled fuel.
Australia has seven LNG plants currently under construction,
and by the time these are all operational around 2018, LNG will
become the nation's second-biggest commodity export, trailing
only iron ore.
Resource and energy exports accounted for 70.2 percent of
all exports in 2012-13, up from 48.9 percent a decade earlier,
underscoring just how vital commodity exports are to Australia's
The strong growth of exports to China has continued in the
2013-14 fiscal year, with trade data showing exports reached
A$101.4 billion ($98.07 billion) in the first 10 months of the
fiscal year to end-April, a gain of 31.9 percent over the same
period a year earlier.
Australian imports from China have also been gaining, but at
a much slower pace, rising 11 percent to A$49.5 billion in the
first 10 months of the 2013-14 fiscal year.
This leaves a record trade surplus with China of A$50.9
billion for the first 10 months, translating as CommSec Chief
Economist Craig James put it, to more than A$2,200 ($2,079) for
In contrast, the U.S. trade deficit with China was $179.6
billion for the 10 months from July last year, equivalent to
about $577 for every American.
There is little doubt that Australia's current economic
wealth is very much related to China's rapid urbanisation and
its surge in commodity imports over the past decade.
From a political perspective, it's probably less than ideal
to be largely dependent on the economic fortunes of one major
trading partner, especially one that with whom relations are
But it's equally hard to see just how Australia can
diversify its export base, given China remains the driver of
commodity demand and changes in its import appetite will dwarf
any changes from other nations, even rapidly industrialising,
high-populations Asian countries such as Indonesia and India.
Iron ore is a case in point, with Australia becoming
increasingly dependent on Chinese buying.
Australia, the world's largest iron ore exporter, will ship
680 million tonnes of the steel-making ingredient in 2014 and
764 million in 2015, according to BREE forecasts.
China, which buys about two-thirds of seaborne cargoes, will
import 869 million tonnes this year and 927 million tonnes in
But iron ore prices are likely to fall, with BREE
forecasting $97 a tonne in 2015, down from $105 this year.
With the spot price .IO62-CNI=SI at $94.90 on June 27, and
more mine supply expected in Australia and number two exporter
Brazil, the risk is that prices will be weaker than BREE
This means Australian producers will have to mine and export
more in order to maintain earnings, a situation that is likely
to exacerbate global oversupply if competitors in other parts of
the world adopt the same strategy.
AS PRICES DECLINE, VOLUMES MUST RISE
It's much the same story for coal, currently Australia's
second-largest resource export.
Prices for coking coal are forecast to average $122.50 a
tonne in 2014 and $121.30 in 2015, down from $210 as recently as
2012, according to BREE. China buys about 30 percent of
globally-traded coking coal.
In thermal coal, contract prices are expected to decline to
$82 a tonne in 2014 and $77 in 2015, from $115 in 2012, BREE
said. China is the world's biggest importer of coal used in
For Australia, the reality is that it faces lower prices for
its key commodity exports, and while demand growth remains
positive, the rate of growth is moderating just as new supply
comes online in many resource markets.
It also has to face up to China's increasing role as a
setter of commodity prices, with its imports, and the outlook
for future imports, proving much of the prevailing market
There is limited scope to diversify its resource exports,
given the nature of mature markets in existing buyers such as
Japan and South Korea, and the relatively small potential of new
markets such as India and Indonesia, especially in comparison
Australians tend to be keen followers of economic data,
given one of the highest levels of share ownership and the
fourth-largest pension fund pool in the world.
However, much of this focuses on domestic indicators such as
gross domestic product and inflation.
There is nothing wrong with having strong cultural ties to
former colonial overlord Britain, and being a solid U.S. ally,
even if this relationship isn't quite as subservient as implied
by the "deputy sheriff" characterisation of former U.S.
President George W. Bush.
But the real focus of Australia's government and populace
should be on the health and development of China, for their own
future prosperity lies with Beijing, not London or Washington.
(Editing by Michael Perry)