Don’t get too fixated on Trump’s America. We trade much more with others

America’s election drama has us hooked.

The big audiences reading story after story about US politics on the websites of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age show how fixated Australia has become with Tuesday’s presidential ballot.

President Trump at a campaign rally in Florida.
President Trump at a campaign rally in Florida.Credit:Chris O’Meara

I know Donald Trump is hard to ignore. But might we be paying just a bit too much attention?

It’s true the US is still the world’s biggest economy. Yes, America is Australia’s most important ally. And sure, our two nations have deep cultural links.


But our fixation on Trump’s America is not matched by our trade with the US.

Throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s, the US consistently purchased more than 10 per cent of Australia’s exports, but that share has declined steadily since the turn of the century.

In 2015, the year before President Trump was elected, America accounted for 7 per cent of our exports, but that share has fallen to 5.3 per cent, the latest figures show.

While the US remains Australia’s biggest source of foreign investment, it’s now our fourth largest export market, behind South Korea and just above India.

The value of Australian goods and services exported to China – our biggest trading partner – was six times more than to the US in 2018-19.

What’s more, Australia ranks a long way down the list of America’s trading partners. In 2018 we were the 34th biggest source of merchandise imports for the US. For Japan that year we ranked third and for China sixth.

Our biggest export to the US is meat (mostly beef), worth just over $3 billion in 2018-19. Our biggest export to China that year was iron ore, worth $63 billion. Seven of our 10 biggest export markets are in Asia, and they account for more than two thirds of what we sell abroad.

Our fascination with Trump only serves to highlight the surprising lack of attention we pay to the politics and society of important Asian trading partners.

While news from Washington attracts huge audiences on the websites of the Herald and The Age, stories about important events in Delhi, Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur invariably get much less attention.

Many cities and regions in Asia that have become vital to our economy through trade are still largely unknown to many, if not most, Australians.

Most Australians could name a swag of American states. But how many could reel off half a dozen Chinese provinces or Indian states?

It points to something peculiar in Australia’s economic story: even though our economy depends increasingly on Asia, our knowledge of the region’s many languages and cultures is alarmingly limited.

Eight years ago the federal government’s Australia in the Asian Century white paper said we must “broaden and deepen our understanding of Asian cultures and languages” to make the most of the emerging opportunities in our fast-growing region.

And yet Asian language proficiency in Australia remains strikingly low, underscoring the lack of deep cultural engagement with the region.

Some experts estimate only about 130 Australians from non-Chinese backgrounds 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 often reflects trading patterns “from 50 years ago” rather than now.

“There’s a bit of a disconnect between flows of information and where our key trading partnerships are,” he says.

The hoopla and controversy of Trump’s presidency has worsened that disconnect. Something similar happened during the Brexit saga, which gained extensive media coverage in Australia even though Britain accounts for only 2.9 per cent of our exports.

The disproportionate share of news and information coming from the north Atlantic can distort our perceptions of global events.

Harcourt points out that during the 2008 global financial crisis, Australians were swamped by “the terrible news out of Wall Street and London” but received much less information about our Asian trading partners, which fared much better amid the turmoil. Australia’s trade links in Asia helped our economy weather that crisis relatively well.

Another example was the Greek debt crisis in 2014-15, 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 nations have received limited attention in Australia.

“It’s interesting how little we know of coronavirus in Vietnam, in Myanmar and other parts of south-east Asia, but how much we know about it in Wisconsin,” Harcourt says. “Coverage of COVID here has been pretty Anglo-American oriented.”

The pandemic, coupled with new constraints on foreign media in some countries, have made it much more difficult for Australian journalists to cover the Asia region. That will affect the flow of high quality news and information.

Even so, Asia’s extraordinary economic and political ascent will continue to reshape our economy and society.

Australia’s fascination with the US election is understandable. Why we pay much less attention to Asian politics and society is harder to fathom.

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Source: Thanks