Mark Fowler: Political posturing over China a balancing act


In recent weeks we have heard comments from both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition on the escalating tensions between Australia and China. Comments carefully crafted to avoid a diplomatic incident but ultimately designed to convey their concerns around the current situation.

From an investor and economic standpoint the evolution of the China-West relationship will likely be one the defining features of the 2020s.

As much as technology, financialisation and artificial intelligence drive core global themes, the relationship between the two major competing blocs will be one of the key determinants of almost everything, from the future of supply chains, and from information flows to the proliferation of technology.

Unlike the Soviet Union, China has become an indispensable link in the global economy, and it is home to a significant share of global manufacturing capacity in almost every product, with its contribution to the global value add approaching US$2 trillion ($2.8t), or broadly on par with the United States, and more than three times the contribution of Japan.

China’s share of global trade is particularly high in lower-end products (e.g. textiles, clothing, footwear, fibres, chemicals, metals), but it has also been steadily growing in the mid-value added segments (e.g. office and telecom equipment, industrial machinery etc).

In all these segments, China’s integrated scalable business model ensures competitiveness even as labour costs and tariffs rise.

However, it is not without issues. China continues to draw heavily on Western intellectual capital and has been successful in exploiting its deep pool of cheap labour, but it has not invented much, preferring to commercially innovate. China’s aggressive diplomatic and economic posture has spurred a change of view on the desirability of its access to Western technology and information.

Would it now even be possible to de-couple? No. Even as some factories move and supply chains duplicate, China is just far too competitive and systemic to be ignored or quarantined.

I do expect the West to impose ever more stringent controls on technology transfers and information. It is also likely there will be restrictions on capital flows and on the ability to access markets, while an increasing number of stocks could be blacklisted by investment managers and environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) considerations.

But for those willing and/or able to invest, the opportunities in China remain strong and the size and scope of the market means it’s still one of the most attractive globally.

So, whilst many may view the comments from Jacinda Ardern as admirable, the fact is, we “hitched” our economic and trade wagon to China many years ago and this I fail to see changing.

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