The 'Asian Century' may not be that good

We've heard so much about the potential for Australia to benefit from "the Asian century" that it seemed right that two eminent Asian economists opened Wednesday's official conference on the Asian white paper with a warning: it might not be that good.

Malaysian-born, Melbourne-trained economist Jayant Menon, now with the Asian Development Bank, said that if all went well, Asia by 2050 could have living standards similar to those of Europe today. But it is also possible that countries such as China, India and Indonesia could reach middle-income levels, then lose momentum, as Malaysia and Thailand have.

Asia, too, has challenges to overcome, Dr Menon reminded us. It has been very successful in its "catch up" phase of growth, but to reach Western levels, Asian countries will need to spread the benefits to all their people, become innovators at the frontiers of technology and science, develop lower emission technologies, attractive cities, and deep financial markets — and in China, among others, cope with a fast-shrinking labour force.

Professor He Fan, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was similarly frank about China's future challenges, which include a fast-shrinking labour force, due to its one-child policy. China's workforce will peak next year, he said, then start shrinking — putting a serious brake on growth.

And while Australia could expand its exports to China to high-value agricultural produce, manufactured goods and services, he noted, they will have to compete there with manufactures and services from all over the world — and proximity will not be the big advantage it has been for exports of bulk minerals.

Professor Anne Krueger, former deputy chief of the International Monetary Fund, was also wary of assuming that Asia is set to continue its stellar growth path. She backed Dr Menon's warnings, saying Asian countries will face slower growth as they approach convergence with the West and in China and Korea, workforce growth reverses, and fewer workers have to support many more retirees.

The Gillard government appointed former Treasury secretary Ken Henry to head a taskforce to prepare a white paper (policy statement) on how Australia could best position itself to benefit from what it calls "the Asian century". Julia Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan constantly beguile us with images of Australian schools, health care professionals, farmers and niche manufacturers finding new markets among Asia's rapidly-growing middle class consumers.

At the seminar, hosted jointly by Treasury, the Reserve Bank and the International Monetary Fund, no one disputed the central thesis that Australia's future lies in developing closer ties with Asia. But there was a clear gulf between the optimism of officials' confidence that Asia will sustain high commodity prices for a decade or more, and the estimate of Victoria University professors Peter Sheehan and Bob Gregory that within a year or two, mining investment will start falling, and detracting from our growth rather than sustaining it.

Both the officials and the outsiders agreed that what we call the resources boom really has three distinct phases. To summarise Professor Gregory's version:

■ Phase 1: rising commodity prices. Between 2003 and 2011, the world decided to roughly double what it paid for our minerals. That added about 10 per cent to Australian incomes, and drove up the Australian dollar, making our imports cheaper. But that phase ended a year ago. Our minerals prices have fallen since, and could fall a lot more ahead.

■ Phase 2: rising mining investment. That began in 2003, and is still building to its climax, now expected to be in 2013 or 2014. Mining investment is now running at 10 times the levels of a decade ago. In the last year, in constant prices, it grew by $33 billion while the whole of GDP itself grew just $45 billion. It dominates the economy, but soon it will be shrinking, and we will need to find new drivers of growth.

■ Phase 3: rising mining exports. You might think that has happened already, but not that much. In the past decade, the volume of mining exports has grown just 3.9 per cent a year, not much faster than GDP. The next five years will see much more spectacular growth: Sheehan and Gregory estimate that it could add $100 billion a year to our GDP.

But on their scenario, that would be offset by a similar fall in the value of mining investment, as Phase 2 goes into reverse. And Sheehan and Gregory point out that there's virtually no jobs in mining — the vast Pluto LNG project will employ just 600 people, once it is up and running — and many of them are 100 per cent owned.

"An extreme example of these trends is the Shell Prelude project, which is a $15 billion wholly foreign-owned LNG project situated in waters offshore in Western Australia", their paper notes.

"Shell is constructing in Korea a massive platform which will be towed to the offshore site, and from which all drilling, liquefaction and shipping activities will take place. None of the gas will be piped to the Australian mainland. The domestic impact is likely to be minimal, other than through the tax paid."

They want the Federal government and the states to combine to create a new growth driver for Australia by setting a joint, semi-independent infrastructure authority, which could borrow under Federal government guarantee, and invest heavily in tackling Australia's infrastructure backlog, which has been estimated at $700 billion.

Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson was not impressed. He suggested that the private sector will provide the growth engine, and if the states need more money for infrastructure, they should stop exempting small business from payroll tax, and cut back their other tax concessions.

Presumably Parkinson is giving similar advice to Swan about the Federal government's own tax concessions, which Treasury last totted up at a cool $112 billion a year. There's enough money there to finance any number of initiatives to keep the economy ticking on.

Tim Colebatch is economics editor.

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