A Program of Work for ANU CIW

Constructivist suggestions for research

** Note I will be adding helpful suggestions as they come in.

I, and apparently half the twitter sphere have been accused of being mean to the authors of ANU CIWs blog and saying they do not do any substantive research, mostly just summarize news and provide bad takes. I am standing by that. However, if an area studies research institute were to actually do some substantive peer reviewed research, what does that look like? I have a large number of open questions in my mind that Australia and the world would like to know more about so here is a partial list of things ANU CIW could do with its time. This may come at the cost of time spent on bad polls and tweets but I think that is a worthwhile trade-off.

Trade and Trade War Related

Key Commodity Export Exposure to Changes in Five Year Plans

In a previous pieces I have noted that Australia’s goods exports are concentrated and there is a strong nexus between coal, iron, steel production and Chinese real estate. Five year plans and their targets and objectives around these items are the first principal component in Australia’s goods trade. A good applied economist would see this is important and spend some time on it, perhaps producing a large open source model for transport and substitution dynamics in coal and iron since it would be immensely useful for RBA, Treasury and others. Happily I and others are working on this and there is some excellent work done on Chinese real estate market issues albeit very little done at the ANU. Given the large implicit bet Australia has on iron ore, it is odd nothing is done by the university most proximate to the government with the most to lose in a China real estate rebalancing.

There is still work to be done on the outlook for LNG exports which I haven’t touched and has interesting substitution dynamics for chemical and plastics production, Russian pipeline imports and the like. You will need to build a big GIS and graph model and do a network flow exercise for that energy but as its export share has risen someone needs to do this since most commercial and energy agency estimates seem to be a mix of linear extrapolation and guesswork.

Industrial Organization of Agricultural Exports and Capacity to Substitute

A large chunk of Australian goods exports are agricultural products with at times challenging and complex issues around finding new markets, doing so quickly and dealing with inherent challenges of cold chain storage and biological import controls. Some of this is less complicated - dry grains like barley and what - and some of it is not, like animal products and particularly meat. For policymakers getting a deep understanding of this from the ground up would be immensely helpful.

Wine exports represent a tricky distribution problem where products need to be kept within temperature parameters, deal with taxation complexity in potential new markets and the sales process is very face to face. There are also issues around just what the impact of current trade actions are - volumes may fall a lot, but actual revenues and margins may not as high end wine with better margins can be moved elsewhere. Add to this problems of excessive distribution concentration due to Treasury Estate’s near monopoly and the challenges of finding distribution for smaller growers during COVID who previously had single distributors in China who moved the product for them. There is a lot of industrial organization to unpack here and as far as I can tell it has not been done yet.

Broader Question of What Kind of Multilateral Initiatives Should Australia Pursue for Economic Security

As well as working out the exposure to current exports we need to seriously think about industrial policy and how that can work with new global value chains that exclude China. Cooperation with Europe, UK, US, Singapore, India and Southeast Asia should all be evaluated in light of local strengths and abilities. Supply chain security, economic defense and somewhat coordinated development could be improved much more quickly with cooperation.

Longer Term Outlooks for Exports Taking into Account China’s Demographics

Trade fights loom large now but if your largest customer’s consumers are not reproducing you are going to have an issue soon enough. There needs to be a longer term study done on the outlook for the demand for key exports in light of this. I have multiple questions along these lines:

  • How quickly can we assume demand for products like milk powder decline as less babies are born?

  • What are patterns for meat consumption over a lifetime for different cohorts?

  • How does this meat consumption change with the development of meat substitutes? How does uptake look today among early adopters, what can we infer going forward?

  • China produces a lot of meat itself and is looking to produce more - do we have protein balance models taking into account that much of their imports are an “overs and unders” market that is an output of their local production?

Diaspora Surveys and Issues

The amount of column space taken up by self appointed spokespeople of the broader Sinitic diaspora is large - and very much larger than the more or less non existent bottoms up survey work that would comprise actually getting a sense of the Australian Chinese and Australian of Asian descent experience. I would be ecstatic if someone did proper survey work around:

This would entail the production of concrete survey data and the legwork of focus group studies which would take away some of the magic of “mystical China knowledge”. That is not a problem for me, it may be for others.

In summary there is no shortage of worthwhile research for an area studies institute to oversee if not direct. It is deeply frustrating that it is not happening and “academic freedom” for some is the freedom to not do research.

It also begs the question of what a research institute is for if it is not doing research and why taxpayers should pay for it. I reproduce below ANUs sources of income: while I understand fealty to the federal government of the day would be a breach of any academic independence, asking useful questions for the country and doing meaningful work to answer them is not.

In light of this it is odd that some of the people at this institute consider themselves beyond reproach and obligation and have some curious takes on Tibet. CCP talking points on “Lama-ism” criticize pre 1950 Tibet as a mystical extractive autocracy that produces nothing for the people and demands a living in return. Are that situation as described there and the one here really so different?