Thanks to Hugh White for continuing our debate on the China-Australia FTA and the intersection between Strategic Studies and Economics. Like Hugh, I do not think that 'Australia's economic weight and sophistication is such an irresistible magnet for China that we can dictate the terms of the relationship and compel it to accept without demur whatever strategic positions we choose to adopt'.

Each of the last four Australian governments has felt the tongue-lashings of the Chinese when their positions on various issues differed from those of the Chinese Communist Party (positions Australia was far from alone in the region in adopting). Even as a callow program director at the Lowy Institute, a private think tank, I was castigated more than once by Chinese officials in Australia for demurring against Chinese views. But although China forthrightly pushes back against those with a different worldview, that does not mean it lets such differences undercut Chinese interests.

I agree with Hugh that measuring the benefits of a bilateral preferential trade deal and divining its policy weight against assumed strategic imperatives is fiendishly difficult. But I think Hugh is underestimating the importance of the China-Australia deal for Beijing, for three reasons:

  1. Leon Berkelmans indicated why the dated and modest estimates Hugh references are no longer a credible guide to the deal signed.
  2. As trade economists remind us every time a trade deal is done, the dynamic gains from structural change to the affected economies are likely to be much greater than the static gains to bilateral trade flows, which are the focus of traditional models such as the one Hugh cites.
  3. As shown by both Japanese and Chinese private sector firms getting the same elevated foreign direct investment ceilings through their respective deals with Australia, the same ceiling first granted to US firms a decade ago in the US-Australia preferential trade deal, the effects of any trade deal cannot be treated in isolation. Rather, each should be seen as part of a much larger whole. This explains why an economy the size of China would bother to negotiate a bilateral deal with Iceland, an economy less than 1% the size of Australia.

China's trade diplomacy seems to be following Deng Xiaoping's maxim to 'cross the river, feeling for the stones.' As shown by the Korea and Australia deals, China under Xi Jinping is signing broader and deeper trade deals with larger trading partners.

Through the ongoing Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership process, China is now also in serious negotiations with its largest regional trading partner, Japan. And President Xi's embrace of the decade-old Free Trade Agreement for the Asia-Pacific idea indicates China is willing to consider trade talks with its largest national trading partner, the US. Lastly, China's trade deals with European Free Trade Area members suggest that China has 'felt the stones' towards trade talks with the European Union, China's largest collective trading partner.

Undoubtedly, Japan, the US and the EU will look at China's commitments in the China-Australia FTA as a minimum standard to be much improved upon, given their greater economic weight and sophistication.

Economic interests and strategic ones are both important, and these interests certainly do intersect. But in the case of the China-Australia FTA, I think Hugh understates the deal's economic importance to China and overstates the intersection between China's global economic interests and regional security interests. He also overstates the prominence of these regional security interests in this intersection.

Economics does explain the China-Australia FTA better than Strategic Studies.

Photo by Flickr user Alexander Kesselaar.