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GDP & the National Accounts: What they are and why they matter w/ Brendan Markey-Towler – EP153

The National Accounts are a huge intellectual achievement and an incredibly useful set of data, including GDP and its components. Chatting about the National Accounts with Economics Explored host Gene Tunny is fellow economist Dr Brendan Markey-Towler, author of the Substack newsletter Australian Economy Tracker. Brendan explains how the National Accounts help us track the current state of the economy as well as longer-term trends, such as shrinking manufacturing sectors and growing services sectors in many advanced economies.

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

Links relevant to the conversation

Brendan’s Australian Economy Tracker Newsletter

Brendan’s post discussed in this episode

Planet Money episode on Simon Kuznets

Australian Financial Review article (pay-walled, alas) which reported “Federal government business generated $1.7 billion in revenue for the big four accounting and consulting firms over the past five years – though the government has a different take on the contract value of that business.”

Transcript: ROI of education: how economists estimate it + US economic update – EP152

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored.

Brendan Markey-Towler  00:04

So, that’s where we get the view that Australia is less and less a country that makes things and builds things. Construction, manufacturing declining as a share of GDP.

Gene Tunny  00:16

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host, Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. 

This is episode 153 on GDP and the National Accounts. What they are and why they matter. 

Chatting about the national accounts with me this episode, is my good friend and fellow economist, Dr. Brendan Markey-Towler, who started a new sub stack newsletter, Australian Economy Tracker. Brendan explains how the national accounts help us track the current state of the economy, as well as longer term trends, such as shrinking manufacturing sectors and growing services sectors in many advanced economies. 

In the show notes, you can find relevant links and any clarifications. Please send any comments or questions to contact@economicsexplored.com. I’d love to hear from you. I’ve been very grateful for all the comments on recent episodes. Your comments really helped me figure out the issues that you’re interested in, and the types of guests that you’re interested in hearing from. So, please keep the comments coming to me.

Right oh! Now for my conversation with Brendan Markey-Towler on the national accounts. Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Brendan Markey-Towler, welcome back to the program.

Brendan Markey-Towler  01:43

Gene, it’s always a pleasure to be here. Sorry, I’m a bit husky today, but I’ve bruised my throat. I’d like to pretend that it was under heroic circumstances, but it was not.

Gene Tunny  01:52

Okay, well, thanks for participating. I understand it’s not damaging your throat, you’re able to talk, you’ve been talking all day. And you’re still happy to talk.

Brendan Markey-Towler  02:01

I could talk under wet cement, mate. So, a bruised throat isn’t going to stop me.

Gene Tunny  02:07

Well, you know, now, you can get a job as a rugby league commentator, possibly?

Brendan Markey-Towler 02:14

That’s true. I’m more of a union man. Yeah, but I will go with league. That’s good. 

Gene Tunny  02:18

Right oh, okay. So, the topic of today, national accounts, what it is, why it matters? You’ve started a sub stack and one of your first pieces that came out on the sub stack was on the national accounts. And you displayed a level of enthusiasm for the national accounts that is very rare. And it actually reminded me of just how marvelous the set of data – the national accounts are, and what a superb intellectual achievement. 

So, going back to the work of Simon Kuznets, and Colin Clark, who, was it Stone as well, Richard Stone, who formulated the methodology financial accounts, and then it was like a system a toss by the UN. So, I think, what your note did was it really helped us; well, it really reminded me of just how impressive those national accounts are. So, could you just tell us first, what you were trying to do in that note? And what’s your sort of general take on the national accounts, please, Brendan? Why do you think they’re so important?

Brendan Markey-Towler  03:28

Partly to justify why I had no friends at school. Because I get excited about nerdy stuff like this. But look, when you actually know what the national accounts are, they’re extremely interesting. And what they really do is they aim to provide a snapshot of the activity within an economy over a set period of time. So, in Australia, and throughout almost the world, I’m not sure of any country that doesn’t do it this way. It gives you a snapshot of all the activity that went on in an economy over the previous quarter. And the central number that depicts that activity is the number that we call gross domestic product. And gross domestic product is a measure of how much wealth was added to the economy, how much production, how much activity, and under the three great categories production, exchange, and income, or earning. That’s what the national accounts do. And they add that up into a single number, GDP. And that tells you how much activity went on in the economy over that quarter. 

Now, where it gets really interesting, is that number not alone would be kind of cool. And we talk about the GDP growth rate. That’s what we mean when you hear on the news that people say economic growth or the economy grew by, that’s what they meant that GDP number increasing or decreasing. But where it gets really interesting is that we approach GDP in three ways. And you can think of this as looking at the economy as the same thing, but from three different directions. And that changes the way that you interpret that number. So, we call these GDP I, or at least I call them GDP I, GDP O, and GDP E. That is, GDP expenditure, GDP income and GDP output. 

And what those numbers are doing are adding up GDP, the activity in the economy, looking at that activity from one to three ways: as a production, as an expenditure, and as an income, right. So, if you think about it this way, when you go down and you buy something that’s dear to our heart, here in Queensland, you go down into buy your coffee, there’s three things going on, there’s three ways that they get that same transaction gets measured and add to GDP. From the expenditure side, the expenditure that you make, when you buy that coffee goes into GDP E, and we add all of those up together, and we get GDP. That expenditure becomes income from the perspective of the person behind the bar. And that gets added up into GDP income. 

And there’s also an interesting concept of gross value add, which is how much value has been produced by that transaction. The way that we measure that in GDP O, is we take the value of the output that was sold and subtract the value of the inputs that went into it. And that by definition, that’s the value that was added. 

So, that’s the three ways that we add up GDP and we get an interesting view of the economy from that. A little bit further breaking that down, obviously, you can break that down to the level of the individual transaction. But the you know, you don’t get a huge amount of information that you get so much information, you have no information. So, we categorize at a high level, these different activities to get a sense of what’s driving GDP. So, within GDP E, the expenditure, which is the most popular and most focused on of the national accounts measures of GDP, we break down expenditure by consumption, investment; in Australia, we break down by housing, as well, government expenditure, both consumption and investment, and net exports.

Gene Tunny  07:34

And by investment, we mean capital investment, we mean expenditure on capital goods. So, we mean, new housing developments, or we mean, new, non-residential buildings, new schools, new factories, new capital equipment that’s purchase.

Brendan Markey-Towler  07:55

That’s right. Yeah. So, in Australia, we call it gross fixed capital investment, which is at the addition to the capital stock of the country in the capital stock of the country is; in Australia, again, we trade a little, perhaps, oddly, that we add housing into that. But factories, equipment; we actually add intellectual property as well. So, science and technology research get added into that figure. And so that’s what we that’s, that’s the way that we break down the economy. 

So, when we break down GDP E that way consumption, investment, government spending net exports, we get a sense of which sector of the demand side of the economy is pulling the economy along. Is it household consumption? Is it buying new houses or building new houses? Is it businesses investing? Is it government consuming, spending money? Or is it government investing? Or is it coming from the international sector? And that gives us a lot of information about the activity within a country, it also gives us information about what might be dragging economic growth as well. So, that’s expenditure. 

Another really interesting measure, well, I mean they’re all interesting, but the second measure GDP O – GDP output, sometimes called GDP gross value add, gives us a sense more of the supply side of the economy. 

So, expenditure gives us a view of what’s driving the economy on the demand side. GDP O gives us a view of what’s driving the supply side. So, we get GDP in Australia, broken down by industry. And that’s where it gets really interesting because we can see which industries are adding the most to GDP. So, that’s cool. We can say, oh, mining adding more? Or how much is mining adding to GDP and how much is it driving or dragging on GDP? Ditto for professional scientific and technical services is another one that we use, agriculture and fishing, public administration safety; how much are these sectors adding to GDP and how much are they dragging or driving GDP. And then finally, the GDP I number. This is typically not quite as informative as the others, which is kind of ironic because it’s the easiest to add up because we just look at the tax returns. GDP I, breaks down GDP by income. And in Australia, we do it by what we’d call the greatest states of Australian society. So, wage earners, non-financial corporations, financial corporations, and government. And we can get a view of who’s earning the income within GDP. How what of that GDP that’s expended and outputted. Where is the income from that activity accruing to? Is it accruing to wages? Is it accruing to company profits? If it’s an accruing company profits, is it occurring to financial or non-financial companies? So, that’s some of the really interesting stuff that we get from GDP, it gives us this, really, especially in Australia, because our accounts are quite amazing.

Gene Tunny  11:05

Yeah, we’ve got some of the best in the world for sure. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  11:09

They really are and we get a really rich view of what’s driving and dragging the Australian economy. What’s creating the wealth in our economy and what’s potentially dragging on the wealth of our economy. And kind of, we get a sense as well, where it’s going.

Gene Tunny  11:26

Okay, so the few things I want to talk about there, Brendan. Okay, so you mentioned that GDP; well, is it an approximation of the addition to wealth? Let me think about this. I mean, part of it is in addition to wealth, to the extent that you’re increasing the capital stock, but then part of it is consumed, and then part of the investment is consumption of fixed capital. So, I mean, it’s national income really, isn’t it? I mean, it’s related to wealth. Yes. So, it’s certainly related to that. It gives us a picture of our national income. I think national income was the original term for it, wasn’t it?

Brendan Markey-Towler  12:11

Yes, although national income gets a little trickier because the we focus on GDP, because it’s really limited to the geographical definition of the country. And that distinction was made early on in the development of the methodology, because national income is a bit fuzzier because it’s typically added up by nationals, rather than by where the activity occurred. So, that’s why the classic example that we give in an economics course, is that national income for a country like Luxembourg is, I think, Ireland, sorry. National income for a country like Ireland is actually much higher than its GDP, because a lot of its nationals live overseas. So, there’s few distinctions that we make within it. But really, what it’s giving you is a view of the activity that’s occurred in the economy, the economy being that system of human behavior, why we produce and exchange stuff that we need for everyday life. And so obviously, that adds to the stock of wealth in the economy, because some of that gets consumed and taken out and other elements of it gets allocated to the national wealth. 

So, yeah, it’s a flow metric in the classic distinction between stocks and flows. It a reflection of the consumption and investment activity in an economy during a particular period.

Gene Tunny  13:40

Yes, it was developed during, well; the need for it became obvious during the 30s, when they were trying to quantify the extent of the Great Depression, I think Kuznets produced a report for the US federal government that strangely became a best seller. I mean, it was the first time someone had produced numbers like this. There’s a great planet money episode on that. I’ll try and find it and link to it in the show notes.

Brendan Markey-Towler  14:09

Well, that’s a good point, right? Because before then everyone kind of knew when times were good, or times were bad. And so, you could tell there were panics and manias and crashes as Charles Kindleberger famously said, but before the national accounts were developed, we never really were able to quantify what that was. And a lot of this was crystallized by John Maynard Keynes, his famous book, The General Theory of Interest, money and employment. I’ve got that wrong, interest money I think I got three. I’m one of the few in my in my generation, I think who actually read the book, which is, which is why it’s embarrassing I can’t remember the name because we always refer to it as the general theory.  And what Keynes was trying to do there was give a theory of why we experienced these manias, panics and crashes, you know, boom and bust. And the problem was that when he wrote it, he was dealing with a lot of abstract thoughts and that needed to be measured. And I’ll actually give a little plug here for our home state of Queensland because Queensland was at the forefront of this, currently the building out at UQ, which houses the School of Economics, the University of Queensland, the School of Economics there is housed in the Colin Clark building, which is kind of ironic because Colin Clark didn’t become an academic at UQ until much later in life, I think around the 1980s. But Colin Clark was at the forefront of developing the methodology, not only for what the national accounts are, but how you actually design the surveys that add up those numbers and find out what the numbers are. 

Gene Tunny  15:49

And he’s quoted in Keynes’s book because Keynes used his estimates of consumption spending for Great Britain, if I remember correctly, in the general theory. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  16:01

And it’s kind of funny. So, Colin Clark who came out here to Australia and did a tour of Australia and he was the hotshot wizkid political economist from Cambridge. And he met with all of the premiers because back in those days, we understood the constitution. So, the premiers were much more powerful than the prime minister. And when he came up here to Queensland, the premier at the time William Forgan Smith, which the alumni of UQ will know, is that is the main building at the University of Queensland. Kind of, a nice little coincidence. Forgan Smith basically said to him, look, do you want to come and be my adviser on all things economics? As Forgan Smith was a great reformer and trying to develop the Queensland economy, he needed to be able to measure the size of the Queensland economy: what was driving, what was dragging, what was causing development, what was dragging on development. And there’s a famous letter that Colin Clark writes back to Keynes to say, I’ve been offered a job to basically become the shadow premier of Queensland. I’m not going to turn that down. And Keynes, I think said something to the effect of where is Queensland. So, then, Colin Clark came out, join the Queensland Statistical Bureau and, he was instrumental in the development of the national accounts and as a point to why the national accounts are so important. While Colin Clark was doing that, he’s obviously thinking about what goes into an economy? What is an economy? What exactly does it mean to say an economy? Because when you actually; we all kind of know what it is, is the economy stupid?

Gene Tunny  17:44

It’s an abstraction, isn’t it? 

Brendan Markey-Towler  17:47

But it is an abstraction. And so, he had to think about, Okay, what does it actually mean? What is an economy, what counts as economic activity? And this is becoming very pertinent again, in these days, where we’re talking about things like Facebook and Amazon and Google where a lot of the activity that goes on there, we sort of think of as economic but it doesn’t measure it. But what happens as a result of Colin Clark thinking through these questions, is he’s starting to develop views of how economic development occurs. So, he ends up writing a large book, which sort of became a classic and development economics on how economies develop, what the basis for economic development are, what the settings for economic policy should be to encourage development. Particularly important question here in Queensland, which was a quite underdeveloped economy at the time.

And as a result, he became a very close adviser to Bob Santamaria, who those diehard fans of Australian politics will know was instrumental in the foundation of the Democratic Labor Party. So, this is the guy who invented a lot of the methodology behind the national accounts. So, when you understand something at that level, when you understand what an economy is, when you know how to measure it, imperfect as that measure may be, you get really rich insights into how an economy is tracking over time. And you get really rich insights as a result that develop over a long period of time of working with these things of what drives economic growth. You can situate those numbers in a history that tells you why the economy is growing, or why it’s not.

Gene Tunny  19:32

Yeah. Where do you get that Colin Clark story from? Is that in that book you keep talking about by, was it Millmow?. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  19:38

Yeah. Alex Millmow, A History of Australasian Economics Thought. I think that’s where I got it from. Yes, it is where I got it from. It’s a really good book because Alex points out that a lot of Australia’s economic contributions to economic thought came from really practical questions like this. How do we measure?

Gene Tunny  19:57

Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  20:07

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Gene Tunny  20:36

Now back to the show. Okay, now, I did want to go back to the point you made about the difficulty of well, the issues around the modern economy and the India head, etcetera. There was a great lecture that John Quiggin, who’s a professor at UQ. And if any Australian economist is going to win a Nobel Prize, it’d be John. I mean, he’s one of the most cited academic economists that Australia has. I mean, maybe, Warrick McKibben could win one. So, but yeah, certainly, John is;

Brendan Markey-Towler  21:11

I always like for John Foster personally.,

Gene Tunny  21:15

Well, John Quiggin, is incredibly distinguished economist and his view at the this lecture he gave was that the problem with GDP is that it’s gross, its domestic and its product. Okay, so we’ve already talked about the domestic issue. So, the fact that you could have a lot of production, but if all your incomes remitted overseas, okay, because it’s just foreign mining companies producing and sending profits home, and then you may not see all of that benefit. But the point he was making is it because its product, and it’s measured at market prices, what you could be missing out on is consumer surplus, you’re not necessarily measuring the benefit to consumers, because all of these products are provided for, well, a lot of them for free. But yet, the foreign company makes money out of you in some other ways, because it’s monetizing your attention, isn’t it?

Brendan Markey-Towler  22:11

Yeah. And so, this is a debate that’s been really reopened, it’s been a perennial debate in economics, and there’s a lot of interesting ideas floating around, inspired by it, which is that when we talked about, you know, how GDP is added up, we talked about the exchange, okay. But the only way that we really observe and exchange is by the exchange of money, right? So, the price multiplied by the quantity of goods or services sold. Now, the problem merges; what happens in a world full of freemium models? What happens in a world where the price of a Facebook membership is zero? That sort of kind of, well, I don’t particularly like Facebook. So, you know, I would challenge just how much consumer surplus is creating, but there’s, you know, many people would argue that there is a value added.

Gene Tunny  23:11

I think TikTok is creating the most at the moment. Especially among the younger generation..

Brendan Markey-Towler  23:16

Massively, yeah. the only thing that shows up in the national accounts from Facebook, Google, TikTok, Instagram, is the data sales. That’s the only thing that shows up in the national accounts. I mean, apart from the marketplace exchanges that go on as well in the Facebook marketplace, and so on like that. But really, it’s ultimately the advertising for Google the sales of data from all of them. That’s the only thing that shows up in the national accounts. So, but there’s more than that, as well. Another problem, And Peter Thiel has recently raised this issue.

Gene Tunny  23:53

Oh, the billionaire? Right.

Brendan Markey-Towler  23:57

The chap who founded PayPal, he thinks that we’ve actually had no economic growth or very little economic growth in the past 70 years. And the reason he says that is because he contends that what is observed as economic growth in the past 70 years, is actually just us bringing production and exchange; valuable production exchange that used to happen in the home, into markets. So, cooking, cleaning, keeping the house in order, gardening; all this stuff gets done on marketplaces, rather than in the home. And that’s a bias in GDP. It doesn’t measure that stuff because it’s not on a marketplace. It can’t be observed. So, that’s another argument. 

You know that GDP doesn’t measure the actual value that’s being created. Now, the problem ultimately is, this goes back to a problem of micro economic theory, which is what is utility? And what is consumer surplus? And actually, from my perspective, why I ultimately say, look, let’s stick with GDP. It’s the worst measure we have, except for all the other things. Some countries have toyed with measuring gross national happiness. You know, New Zealand is toying with that at the moment, Bhutan famously measured it. The UN uses the Human Development Index, which is a weighting of GDP per capita literacy rates and life expectancy, I think.

Gene Tunny  25:31

All of which are highly correlated, aren’t those?

Brendan Markey-Towler  25:33

Yeah, and so, that was a March Ascends Brainchild, Jagdish Bhagwati famously said, well, yeah, they’re correlated. So, what are we talking about here? So, all those debates over replacing GDP ultimately, were reduced to a deep, deep philosophical problem, which economists are not well placed to solve, which is, what is value? What is good, what is true, what is beautiful? And I got some views on that. But as an economist, I ain’t got nothing to say about that. And so, when economists start dabbling in it, you kind of go, I used to be a fan of the happiness literature. But now I read and go, ah, this is, you know, it’s very simplistic. We’re going to use subjective wellbeing measures to add up Gross National Happiness. Okay, fine, that’s a really subjective and not very tangible measure. Whereas I can look out the window and see the cranes on the skyline here in Brisbane and see that’s an objective, measurable thing.

Gene Tunny  26:37

Well, it stood the test of time, hasn’t it? So, we’ve been using it for decades now. And there’s a general feeling that it does capture the state of the economy reasonably well. I mean, there are going to be people who grumble about it from time to time, but generally well, in Australia, at least when we had the recession, I mean, I always remember the 91 recession, because I was in high school at the time. And like, things just look bleak for anyone who was in high school and wanted to get a job. But then that was the period when retention rates at high school really ramped up. So, it was it was telling us something important there and it tends to; like it could give false signals, there’s a big debate at the moment over what’s happening in the US. But then look, the economy’s looks like it is slowing to an extent. There’s the impact of the Federal Reserve hikes. So, let’s wait and see how it all plays out. I mean, my feeling is, it’s generally a pretty good indicator of the state of the economy. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  27:38

I look bad, I’m a Queenslander first, Australian second, and as a result, I do have a bias which is towards tangible reality. Right, feelings are very ephemeral. And feelings are important, right? They are very important, but they’re really difficult to measure. And they’re very subjective, and they can be easily manipulated. Now, GDP can be manipulated as well, depending on how you count things up. But at the end of the day, it’s stuff that’s being produced stuff that’s being consumed. And it’s tangible, observable goods and services. So, insofar as I really have a criticism of GDP, my major criticism is that it really; I agree with Peter Thiel largely, biases us away from realizing the value that is produced in a house. 

And look, I’ve got a young, I’ve got a four-month-old son now so and my wife is at home, taking care of that. And I tell you what, that is incredibly mind blowing valuable work that she’s doing; doesn’t show up anywhere in GDP. Now, that doesn’t negate GDP. Because I think the solution to that is really, let’s just realize what GDP is actually measuring. Now, that does work in a political debate, because in politics and the way that the media works, you need a number and you need that number to be growing, otherwise, elections get lost, and so on and so forth. But when you’re, you know, when you’re doing grown up analysis instead of politics, I think the solution is to look at what GDP is actually measuring. It’s not a measure of value and if you think of it that way, then you’re wrong. Stop thinking of it like that. Think of it as it’s a measure of the production of stuff and the exchange of stuff within the economy, within the market that we can observe. Don’t try and start thinking about as a measure of all of the economic activity that ever happens in an economy. Just recognize the limitations, it doesn’t measure this stuff that goes on the household and that’s incredibly important.

Gene Tunny  29:51

Yeah, fair enough. That’s a good point. I’ll have to come in another episode to this issue of what’s in GDP? What’s out? What does it all mean? I’ll try and have that discussion in a future episode because there is a couple of other things I wanted to pick up on from your note; your note reminded me of a couple of things. And it’s the fact that this system is so beautiful, I mean, we end up getting from two different directions, possibly two different sets of data. I mean, we can look at what spend on consumption goods, final consumption goods, now, we have to be careful, we’re talking about final consumption goods and final investment goods, because what we’re trying to do is avoid double counting, we’re trying to get; because there are a lot of business to business transactions, businesses selling to other businesses inputs, so you have to take care of all that and make sure you’re not double counting title output, you want the expenditure on final goods and services. 

So, if you look at that, that ends up telling you what GDP is, once you add exports, subtract imports, because, well, if you import something, then you don’t have to produce it here. So, there could be stuff that shows up a consumption spending or an investment spending that’s imported, and we didn’t produce it here. So, you have to subtract it. And likewise, if we’re exporting something, well, we produced it here, we know we produced it here, then that adds to our output. But then, you look at spending data, on the other hand, you can look at income data. So, you are saying, look at the wages data, look at the profits data. And yeah, I guess it is coming from the ITR. I’m not sure exactly where the IBS gets it from. But I mean, that’s a likely source. I do surveys of businesses.

I’d have to check exactly how much they’re using ATO data, but I know they do surveys of businesses to get that information. They’ve got a household expenditure survey, they’ve got surveys of, well I guess they got their business server; I’d be looking at what they spending on capital goods. Looking at what they’re earning. And so, they build up this picture of earnings that way, and also the gross value added in the business. Which as you described, is their revenue less their production costs, and wages are part of the value added to. So, wages plus the gross operating surplus, is your value added in the business?

Brendan Markey-Towler  32:21

Yeah, it’s a very slippery definition, because it’s not quite profits. But it’s, you know, the value of inputs minus the value of outputs. And that by definition has to be the value that is added by that business to the economy, insofar as we can measure it.

Gene Tunny  32:35

This is because we’re talking about gross domestic product. So, we haven’t subtracted for the depreciation of capital stock, because some of the investment that occurs is just replacing existing capital stock. So, the building wears out and we have to replace it.

Brendan Markey-Towler  32:52

Too hard. We set that aside. Depreciation is very funny thing to talk about.

Gene Tunny  32:56

Right? Yeah. Well, we’ll leave that for now. You got time just to chat about your great quote? I should have brought it in earlier. You use these different perspectives on GDP to provide a really nice summary of what’s been happening in Australia. I thought this was very good. Exactly. Okay, so after you analyze where the growth has occurred, and you know, it’d be good if you could explain this at the moment. You concluded this; to put it somewhat tribally, Australia is less and less a country that derives its wealth from making and building things. Still a country that makes its wealth by digging stuff out of the ground and renting houses, and more and more a country that consults and cares. Could you please explain how you came to that conclusion, Brendan?

Brendan Markey-Towler  33:53

Well, you so what I did there, this is one of the most informative aspects of the national accounts I’m very interested; everyone focuses on the demand side of the economy, because we’re all Keynesian.

Gene Tunny  34:07

What we’ve been heavily influenced by Keynes, yes. There’s no doubt about that, whether we’re Keynesian. So, that’s another question. You can go ahead. Yes.  

Brendan Markey-Towler  34:13

We are all Keynesians. But the supply side of the economy is super interesting. See which sectors of the economy are generating the wealth. Now, the way that you can do that is by looking at gross value add, right. So, then you take the gross value added by each industry divided by the total GDP and you get the share of GDP, economic activity, economic value that is being created by that industry. And you can track that over time. Now, the problem with that data why almost no one really uses it? Some people do, but almost no one does. And you’ve used it, Gene, is that there’s a lot there, the ABS breaks the economy down by I think its 20 sectors. possibly 25. So, you’ve got to kind of cut it down to get some useful insights from it. 

So, the way I did it was alright, let’s cut out everything that’s less than 5% of the economy and look only at things that produce more than 5% of Australian GDP. Now, no sector really produces more than about 15. But there’s a clear standout. And there are clear standout trends once you do that, and you clean the graph up by eliminating all the Martin “minor sectors”. And you see some very strong trends. 

Trend number one that’s quite striking, and I should emphasize, this is all by real data. So, we hold prices constant to see what’s going on at the volumetric level in each of these sectors. So, we hold P constant, and we look at what’s changing in Q. Q is for quantity. And so, there’s benefits and costs to doing that. But it’s valuable as an exercise as long as you’re aware of the limitations of doing that. First interesting thing, manufacturing and construction are in decline in Australia. They’re not producing as much value add. In volumetric terms, they’re not producing as much value add anymore. They’ve been declining for the past 10 years as a share of GDP. So, that’s where we get the view that Australia is less and less a country that makes things and builds things; construction, manufacturing declining as a share of GDP.

Gene Tunny  36:30

So, with manufacturing, we had a car industry once, we subsidized a car industry, we tried to buy ourselves a car industry, and it just could not be viable on its own. And there wasn’t any more money we could throw at it to keep it open. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  36:48

And you look at somewhere like Maroubra or Ipswich. Which would you know, once kind of manufacturing ish areas in Queensland. Maroubra main manufacturing now is government contracts, building bullets for the Australian Army.

Gene Tunny  37:03

And do they build trains, still?

Brendan Markey-Towler  37:06

They do now. Yes, Maroubra now has a trains contract to build trains for the Queensland Government as well. And I think Ipswich still has a little bit of a train industry as well. But really not too much, by the way of price manufacturers. It’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, and it’s not to say that it’s very valuable. Queensland, for instance, has very vibrant medical manufacturing sector. That’s kind of grown up on the back of our extremely good hospitals and medical research. But generally, across Australia, the story is one of the car industries; we don’t really make stuff anymore. It’s just not competitive to build stuff. And so, that number is reflecting something that you see a lot when you go down to Fortitude Valley here, which, you know, the state would like to think Silicon Valley. Yes. Anyway, it’s Fortitude Valley, Queensland Silicon Valley, you see that a lot of the companies there just want to grow big enough that they can afford to offshore their manufacturing elsewhere. And the classic one is, I think Trivium, the electric car battery manufacturer, which is, as soon as they got big enough, they got a loan from the Queensland Government and then went to build factories in Tennessee.

Gene Tunny  38:17

Is that right? Is that a good use of taxpayers’ money?

Brendan Markey-Towler  38:21

Well, I’m completely agnostic on that. So, that’s what’s that number is reflecting. Similarly, construction,  this runs a bit counter to the crane index that we’re seeing in the city at the moment, but construction has been adding less and less to the economy. It’s not just large construction projects, but construction is declining as a share of GDP. 

Gene Tunny  38:48

Well, I’ll have to look at this. But I think what could be explained is 10 years ago, we had that massive project up in Gladstone at Curtis Island where we built the three LNG terminals or what are they? Refrigeration or liquification facilities. They turn the methane that comes from the coal field, the coal seams to liquefy it so, they can put it on a boat economically and ship it to Japan or Korea. And that was like $70 billion.

And it basically doubled the level of capital expenditure in Queensland at the time. It’s absolutely extraordinary.

Brendan Markey-Towler  39:31

There’s a huge effort on part of government corporations to get that going. 

Gene Tunny  39:35

And then in the southern states, maybe a few years later, I can’t remember the time; we had that big apartment construction boom. So, that could be explained. I’ll have to look at the data but go on. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  39:48

And that’s what’s really good about the national accounts is kind of counter to what you’re seeing if you’re walking around, particularly, Brisbane at the moment. The number of cranes in the sky is astounding, but this is why statistics are important because what’s local loss to a particular area is not necessarily true of the entire country. And what’s even true of a particular sector of construction, residential construction, government construction is not necessarily true, it might mean that we’re not building that many mines, which ties into the second point, which is, although it has declined in volumetric terms, the mining sector is still the single biggest contributor to Australian real GDP. And it’s not close, it’s way up; I forget the exact number, but it’s well up towards 10% of the entire Australian economy value added is produced by the mining sector. 

So, that’s, you know, digging stuff out of the ground, selling it to various countries around the world.. Behind that really interesting sector is, is the rental sector. So, a lot of value added in the Australian economy. It’s the only sector that holds candle to mining is the rental sector where people are building houses and renting them.

Gene Tunny  41:03

Okay. So, when you analyzed that, did you look at the industry, is it rental services? Or did you look at what’s in the national accounts as; there’s rental income, isn’t there? What do they call it? Trying to remember what the label is in the national accounts, but they impute rent for owner occupied dwellings as well, in that sector. If I remember correctly.

Brendan Markey-Towler  41:29

Rental services. I’m pretty sure is the exact name of the sector.

Gene Tunny  41:33

Looking at it by industry. Okay. Yeah.

Brendan Markey-Towler  41:36

So, that’s an important point, right? Because rent to also shows up as an income segment as well. Not nearly as big there. But the value add is quite large. And so that’s saying, you know, the Australian economy is very much one that is dominated at the moment, by digging stuff up out of the ground, and then sending it offshore, and providing housing for people. Those are the two biggest sectors of the Australian economy. And then, finally, the very long-term trend, we come to the third part of that bond ma that you so ably quaffed, which is, surprisingly, the sectors that are growing fastest as a share of the Australian economy are; you’ll have to double check me on this, but I’m pretty sure it’s called health care and social assistance.. And professional scientific and technical services. Those have gone quite strongly over the last few years as a share of GDP. 

Scientific and Technical Services is obvious enough, right? That’s the IT department and you know, the lab.

Gene Tunny  42:45

There’s professional too. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  42:49

Yeah. Professional Services is the big one. So, this is your consultancy lawyers. So on and so forth, right. It’s Eagle street, the consulting firms along Eagle street.

Gene Tunny  42:58

Where we are in Brisbane, in the top end of town, would you call it the big end of town? You’re sitting in water from place to the moment and the offices of Hopko Gannon, thanks, again for allowing us to use.

Brendan Markey-Towler  43:13

And so this area is growing really strong. I forget where the legal services are counted among professional service.

Gene Tunny  43:18

But I think I would be Yeah, sure.

Brendan Markey-Towler  43:21

They might be under administration, administrative services. But professional, scientific and technical services, basically, scientific and technical can kind of be in house. But a huge majority of that professional services is consulting, right? So, Australia is doing a lot more consulting as a share of GDP.

Gene Tunny  43:40

And this is business to business, typically? Business-to-business consulting services or business to government.

Brendan Markey-Towler  43:47

Business to government is the big one, especially here in Queensland right now. That’s not backed by a number. But that’s you know, that’s kind of;

Gene Tunny  43:58

There are numbers for the Australian Government. I’ll put them in the show notes, because I looked at what the Australian government has spent on the Big Four consulting firms like KPMG and PwC. And it’s hundreds of millions a year, right? It’s big money. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  44:12

And then, you go step below and the state governments will probably be even bigger again, because every consulting project by the Department of Public Works now gets a cut benefit cost analysis written by one of the big firms, right. So, just because of the procurement rules around that, so professional, scientific and technical services really growing as a segment of GDP, but also health care and social assistance. And so that I would posit is really a reflection of the ageing population. Ageing population, you need more health care and social assistance, certainly. That sector is growing very strongly – aged care.

Gene Tunny  44:49

Yeah. Which is NDIS too, the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Brendan Markey-Towler  44:53

Absolutely massive, huge boom. You throw a stone in Brisbane and you hit NDIS provider, which is really not good, you shouldn’t do that because that’s naughty. And that getting on the back of Yeah, health departments are in Queensland; Queensland Health is the largest single employer in the state. That’s a massive sector. It’s a $20 billion in the state budget. That’s a big number, right? And we’re always trying to spend more on it. So, very big sector that. So, those are the two real growth sectors in the Australian economy. And again, I should stress by volumetric measures, right? So, notice that that kind of cuts against the mining booms like us, and that goes to the difference between real and nominal GDP. Real being a volumetric thing where we’re trying to hold prices constant, and the reason we do that is because nominal GDP could be growing because the actual underlying productive capacity of the economy is growing, or because inflation is growing. And real GDP tries to say, what’s the underlying volumetric productive capacity of the economy? How’s that growing and contracting. And in that measure, you really see the big growth sectors, mining is actually declining as a volumetric share of GDP as a share of real GDP, but it’s still the biggest by far professional, scientific and technical services, and healthcare and social assistance really, really growing. Yeah, that’s where the saying, that’s where my little trite way of putting it came from. Australia is less and less a country that makes things and build things. It’s still very much a country that digs stuff out of the ground and provides housing, but it’s more and more something of a white collar economy.

Gene Tunny  46:43

Oh, yeah. It’s postindustrial. We’re moving more to services. Yeah.

Brendan Markey-Towler  46:49

Natural I mean, with the natural resources sector.

Gene Tunny  46:52

Yeah. that’s right. And I mean, because the world wants to buy our resources. And for the last year or so, they’ve been paying ridiculously high prices for them. It’s an open question over whether we want to sell it. Right. Well, yes. I mean, there’s the big issues there of course that we don’t have time for.

You’ve been very generous with your time, Brendan

Brendan Markey-Towler  47:22

You are very generous letting me on the podcast to talk to people again, Gene.

Gene Tunny  47:27

You’re a great talker. Always enjoy having you on.

Brendan Markey-Towler  47:30

Even with the bruised throat? Like I told you, I could talk through a wet cement.

Gene Tunny  47:35

Very good. So, any final points before we wrap up?

Brendan Markey-Towler  47:39

No, it just ends up on I ended up with the note of circling back to where we started, which is don’t underestimate the national accounts. They’re a really, really, really interesting data set. They give us such a rich view. We didn’t even talk tonight about how in Australia, they break down by state as well, so, we can get an even richer view of how the different states are doing because you know, Australian economy tracker – my blog.

Gene Tunny  48:06

Okay, right. On Sub stack, is it?.

Brendan Markey-Towler  48:09

Yeah, on Sub stack. Please subscribe and contribute to the Markey-Towler retirement fund. It’s founded on two points, which is that one, the perfect graph says more than a doctoral thesis and two, there’s no such thing as an Australian economy. There’s actually six different city state economies and two territories. So, the national accounts in Australia are amazing, not just because of the depth of analysis, they allow us on the supply side of the economy, but on the demand side as well. We get some really, really rich version. So, a plug to remember has to diehard nerds who didn’t have friends at school, but now we have the national accounts.

Gene Tunny  48:53

I’m sure you had friends at school, Brendan. Brendan Markey-Towler, that’s been terrific. I really enjoyed talking to you about the national accounts. 

Brendan Markey-Towler  

I really enjoyed talking to you, Gene. Thanks for having me. 

Gene Tunny  

Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Till next week, goodbye.

Credits

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.auPlease consider signing up to receive our email updates and to access our e-book Top Ten Insights from Economics at www.economicsexplored.com. Also, please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

China, Taiwan & the Indo-Pacific w/ Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller – EP146

The next big global economic shock could come from a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a shock which would probably have more extensive economic impacts than the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Joining show host Gene Tunny in episode 146 to discuss China and Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific more broadly is Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller, Senior Specialist in Defence Research at The University of Queensland and the Program Director of the Australian Program Office for Advanced Hypersonics. 

You can listen to the conversation using the embedded player below or via Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher, among other podcast apps.

About this episode’s guest – Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller

Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller is a Senior Specialist in Defence Research at The University of Queensland (UQ). She is also an Affiliate Senior Specialist at UQ’s Centre for Policy Futures where her current research project centres on issues of contestation and coherence in Indonesia’s national security policy making. Greta has extensive professional experience working on Australia’s bilateral relationship with Indonesia and continues to utilise her Indonesia country expertise in consulting, research, and international development roles. She contributes regularly to media and think-tank analysis on regional strategic, political and foreign policy issues, and engages with policy communities through submissions, dialogues, conferences and executive educations programs. Greta’s broader research interests include Indonesian civil-military relations, Indonesia-China relations, politico-security developments in Southeast Asia, and Australia’s regional foreign policy. Greta is an Executive Council member of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) Queensland and Adjunct Research Affiliate at Griffith Asia Institute.

Links relevant to the conversation

Greta’s articles at the Lowy Institute Interpreter:

https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/contributors/articles/greta-nabbs-keller

Greta’s articles at ASPI’s the Strategist:

https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/author/greta-nabbs-keller/

Greta’s conversation article on Australia’s relationship with South East Asia:

https://theconversation.com/how-well-has-the-morrison-government-handled-relations-with-southeast-asia-181958

Background reading on China and Taiwan:

https://www.cfr.org/blog/what-xi-jinpings-major-speech-means-taiwan

Transcript of EP146 – China, Taiwan & the Indo-Pacific w/ Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored…

Greta Nabbs-Keller  00:04

I think Biden has, whether there were slips or not, he’s made it quite clear that the US will intervene, but I think it’s increasingly likely that we would be looking at essentially World War III if China did decide to attack Taiwan.

Gene Tunny  00:21

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host, Gene Tunny. I’m a professional Economist based in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is episode 146. On China, Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted how geopolitical developments can disrupt global markets and economies. The next big geopolitical and global economic shock could come from a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The Chinese government claims Taiwan belongs to China. It has an ambition of taking over Taiwan by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, following the Communist Revolution led by Mao Tse Tung. Various actions of the Chinese government and its military in recent years, have raised concerns that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could happen sooner rather than later. Obviously, this would have profound implications for the global economy, and hence, I feel it’s important to cover the issue on the show.

Joining me in this episode of chat about China and Taiwan, among other geopolitical issues, is Dr. Greta Nabbs-Keller. Greta is a senior specialist in Defence Research at the University of Queensland, UQ, here in Brisbane. Currently, she is the interim Program Director of the Australian program office for Advanced hypersonics. Greta has an extensive background in defence and foreign policy issues with a specialization in Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

I invited Greta onto the show because I thought she’d be a great person to help us understand what’s happening with China and Taiwan, and what China has been up to in the Indo-Pacific region more broadly.

This episode, you’ll learn why foreign policy experts are so concerned about China, because it’s what they call a revisionist power, one with a goal of remaking global institutions and rules for its benefit. In the show notes. You can find relevant links and details of how you can get in touch with any questions, comments or suggestions. I’d love to hear from you. So please get in touch and let me know your thoughts on this episode. This is a big issue we deal with in this episode, and allow him to return to it in the future for a closer look at the potential economic impacts of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, if that were to happen.

Right on, now for my conversation with Dr. Greta Nabbs-Keller on China, Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific.

Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it.

Dr. Greta Nabbs-Keller, welcome to the program.

Greta Nabbs-Keller  02:57

Thanks very much, Gene.

Gene Tunny  02:57

Excellent, yes. Good to have you on the show. I thought I’d invite you on; I had a recent conversation with Michael Knox, who’s the Chief Economist at Morgan’s, which is a major stock broking wealth management firm, here in Australia. And I asked Michael about China. And I must say I was rather, surprised by his answer that he was so concerned about a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan sometime in the future or in the next few years. So that’s, that was the original reason I thought I’ll be good to have you on the show. And then I know you’re also an expert on Indonesia and Southeast Asia. And we’ve got a new government here in Australia. And the first trip the PM made was to Jakarta and he had a bike ride with Joko. So, we got to ask you about Indonesia too.

But before we get into all of that, would you be able to tell us please, what is the Australian program offers for advanced hypersonics? That’s where you’re the interim Program Director. Can you tell us a bit about that, please?,

Greta Nabbs-Keller  04:10

Yeah. Thanks, Gene. Well, my position at UQ on both senior specialists Defence research in our engineering, architecture and IT faculty. And my other hat is the program director of the Australian program office for advanced hypersonics which is probably one of the most exciting titles, I think I’ve ever had Gene. Essentially, the program officer, the APOAH, as we abbreviate to it, it’s fundamentally about bringing Australian university expertise in hypersonics together So, University of Queensland is the world’s largest hypersonics group. And I don’t think many people are aware of that that the southeast Queensland with the University of Queensland and USQ are home to considerable expertise in hypersonics science and technology and indeed, I think really the genesis or the story of hypersonics in Australia from Professor Ray Stalker’s time, for around 35 years is largely been centered on the University of Queensland and the subsequent integration with US hypersonics program.

So, the Australian program offers for advanced hypersonics it’s fundamentally, a team Australia approach to advancing hypersonics research and more blue sky or beyond, you know, near horizon research, things around electric propulsion and plasma field engine. And it’s also fundamentally about workforce pipeline. As you know, Gene, Australia is facing increasing shortage of STEM graduates and the APOAH look at pathways to citizenship and basically developing a nurturing that workforce pipeline that’s in such demand by Defence and industry.

In essence, the APOAH provides a single gateway into the Australian university hypersonics ecosystem to include UQ, USQ, University of New South Wales, and RMIT. So, we’re developing that concept to be ready to provide Australian Department of Defence with hypersonic solutions and capabilities.

Gene Tunny  06:26

Okay, so hypersonic, that’s five times the speed of sound?

Greta Nabbs-Keller  06:30

That’s correct. Mark five and above. And I must say, Gene from a non-science and engineering background, and you introduce me as an Indonesian specialist. So obviously, I have more on international relations or comparative politics background, I’ve been on a steep learning curve about hypersonic about scram jets and various modes of propulsion. And it’s been very, very interesting for me.

Gene Tunny  06:56

Yeah, well, it’s certainly relevant in geopolitics, because one of the things that I’ve heard is that I mean, the Chinese, they’re making great advances in hypersonics. So, and I don’t know whether they’re ahead of the Americans or ahead of us or the British, I don’t know. But I know that that’s one of the concerns that’s out there. I mean, there are these hypersonic missiles that have been developed, or is that the Russians do?

Greta Nabbs-Keller  07:23

It’s both. You’re both right. I mean, the Russians have long had hypersonics technology and other players are India and Japan. And indeed, there may be others because a lot of that is closely guarded. Chinese did fire a advance hypersonic missile last year, which caused some alarm, at least in media reporting, Gene within the Pentagon and Washington. I think one senior US General described it as a Sputnik moment where the US I think, was, fundamentally alarmed at the advances in Chinese hypersonics technology.

Again, I’m not a hypersonics scientist myself, but certainly China’s formidable military buildup and integration of critical and emerging technologies is quite significant. And the rest of the world is looking at that with some unease, of course.

Gene Tunny  08:29

Right, okay. So, we might talk about China now. So, what stunned me as an economist in the last few years, I think it’s the last few years, is just how much that relationship with China has deteriorated. Because there was so much excitement about China joining the WTO in 2001. And I mean, we all saw the economic gains to Australia from the growth of China through them purchasing our coal and iron ore and what that meant for that sector. So yeah, this is all come as a real shock. And it looks like I mean, there’s been a real; it’s a big challenge for our country, and also for our allies, the US and Japan. And I suppose we’re part of this quad group now with India. So, I’d like to ask you about that later. What’s that all about? Because I thought India was not aligned. But now it looks like it’s aligned.

To begin with, could you just describe what’s your assessment of the current strategic environment, the current environment facing Australia and I suppose the US as well in the Indo-Pacific, I mean, how concerned should we about what’s going on?

Greta Nabbs-Keller  09:55

I think it’s deeply concerning, Gene, for those of us who follow international political and strategic developments closely, I think there are real reasons for concern and you know, indeed, in terms of Australia and take Australian strategic guidance and defence and foreign policy documents, you know, they describe the environment as more uncertain, and more complex and more dangerous. You might recall Peter Dutton talking about the drums of war, a beating and being criticized for that. But I’ve seen in my own career, particularly over the last, I’d say, post COVID, particularly Gene that that word war, is being more openly discussed and acknowledged as a real prospect due to the deteriorating strategic environment and rising strategic tensions between major powers.

So, I think in a nutshell, many of the current geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific centre on a rising and a revisionist China and of course, it’s not only sino US strategic rivalry that we can see, you know, playing out, across economics, geo-economics, around technologies, around trade, around human rights, around maritime strategic competition. But of course, one also has to remember that it’s not only US and Australia have difficulties with China, but indeed, many countries even actually, European countries as well. Particularly, you mentioned the Koba particularly Japan and India, of course, as significant Indo-Pacific powers. And they have their own issues, which are probably, to some degree more concerning and more pressure than Australia’s facing, particularly India, on the line of actual control up there on the border. And definitely, India and China have gone to war previously. Over their contested border, they’re in the line of actual control up there in the Himalayas, you see increasing pressure on Japan, particularly in the maritime domain in the East China Sea.

So, China under current president, Xi Jinping and I acknowledge, as you introduced me, I’m an Indonesian specialist rather than a China specialist. But of course, I follow these developments closely. And a lot of these uncertainties centre on China and a more assertive, and aggressive China and decision Jinping’s presidency and how various states in the region are responding to these pressures and constraints. I think particularly with Australia, if you’re an observer or student of Southeast Asian politics particularly, you would have seen some of the coercive and punitive behavior playing out previously on Southeast Asia that was later applied to Australia, particularly once our former Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, called for and rightly so, an independent inquiry into the origins of the COVID 19, the virus.

Indeed, in Southeast Asia we’ve seen for a number of years, very coercive tactics, particularly in the maritime domain, and some implementation of coercive trade practices against Asian states like the Philippines, over tensions in the South China Sea; rival maritime claims in the South China Sea. And if I’m not mistaken, there was some tariff barriers put on Banano, a Philippines banana export. So. there have been a number of precedents here.

I think China, after COVID-19 obviously became more brittle and much more brittle and more sensitive to international criticism over the origins and the management in the earlier days of the COVID 19 pandemic. And I think a number of, you know, even seasoned foreign policy experts and senior Australian public servants are probably shocked by Australia’s treatment by Beijing after calling for that independent inquiry into the COVID 19 pandemic. But also, I think, a number of countries, we saw what was characterized as wolf warrior diplomacy, by Beijing, that list of 14 grievances against Canberra.

But there has been some precedent here in their treatment of other countries and indeed, it’s not just Australia that’s experiencing these problems as I said, countries like Japan are really at the frontline of increasing coercion and intimidation.

I think also China’s willingness to engage in grey zone tactics. And that’s something that Russia has also employed successively in Ukraine. Prior to the actual invasion of Ukraine, and you see, militia groups that, rather than they’re not Russian military forces, per se, but there are militia groups, you see disinformation campaigns, and I think China has increasingly engaged in those grey zone operations or what is termed hybrid warfare. So, their acts of intimidation and coercion, shorter warfare. And I’ll give you an example on that Gene, in the maritime domain. You’ll see China deploy heavily armed paramilitary vessels escorting their fishing fleets in the South China Sea, rather than PLA Navy vessels, for example, increasing cyber intrusion, cyber hacking against Australia, but a range of countries all around the world.

You’re seeing increasingly, aggressive and assertive China that looks to fundamentally kind of reshape the Indo Pacific and probably more broadly the global order; more convergent, with its own interests. So, I think there’s no doubt that, you know, China has achieved particularly, in Southeast Asia, increasing political, economic; in terms of military balance of power, that’s something we can discuss. I think it was quite a shock for Canberra and the Australian public to be on the receiving end of that rough kind of diplomacy and treatment post March 2020.

Gene Tunny  16:56

Absolutely. Well, they applied higher tariffs on many of our products on beef, barley; they restricted the imports of our thermal coal into their ports. I’m going to have to look at those sporting grievances. That’s interesting. And you mentioned Peter Dutton, was he a Defence minister?

Greta Nabbs-Keller 

Yes, former Minister for Defence.

Gene Tunny 

So that’s why those comments were picked up and he was accused of being, was it sensationalist? It was the right word to describe that. But yeah, there were people who were thinking that sort of commentary wasn’t helpful at the time. Right. Can I ask you what you mean, by revisionist? What do you mean by a revisionist China?

Greta Nabbs-Keller  17:42

The concept of a revisionist power, is a power or a nation state that wants to remake the international order, an international system and the rules. As I said, it convergent with their own interests. Undergraduate students studying international relations and politics, they understand about the post Second World War kind of US led global system, whether and of course, you Gene, you’re more an expert on the international trading order and the WTO, and the basis of rules and norms, and that extends, of course, to international legal norms that govern the maritime domain.

And so, it’s really that post Second World War Bretton Woods, US led system of strategic alliances that emerged out of the Second World War, where the US has largely been the dominant, the preponderant global power and that’s very much been changed. And I give a practical example, because it sounds abstract. So take the maritime domain and on class, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs territorial waters and exclusive economic zones, and indeed, Indonesia, was one of the architects of on class the UN Convention, and as diplomats, played a key role being the world’s largest Arca pelagic state, and a system of rules and governance and norms that guaranteed maritime governance and nation states access to their territorial and the resources within their 200 nautical miles exclusive zone.

So, China has, increasingly refuted international legal norms, Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling 2016 which found in favor of the Philippines on rival maritime claims. China simply chose to ignore that and refute that. So, I think what you’re seeing more generally Gene, in terms of geopolitical tensions, you’re seeing countries like Russia and China who are more willing to challenge those established legal norms and international principles that have largely underpinned prosperity and security and stability in the Indo Pacific. And we’re seeing the erosion of that and that’s creating increasing uncertainty and tension.

Gene Tunny  20:21

Just on those maritime boundaries, is that what you were talking about before and China isn’t respecting what was decided by this international body? What does that mean, practically? Does that mean that they will help their fishing crews go into those waters and fish?

Greta Nabbs-Keller  20:45

Absolutely. The problem in the South China Sea; and you might be familiar with, China’s very ambitious South China Sea claim that takes in around 95% of the South China Sea, irrespective of those maritime boundaries that were decided under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. So, you’re seeing effectively, Chinese paramilitary and fisheries activities inside our state’s exclusive economic zones. You’re seeing increasingly belligerent and coercive behavior against the Coast Guards; more often Coast Guard, sometimes military assets of Southeast Asian states, littoral states that have claims in the South China Sea. So, you basically have a very powerful nation state who’s not willing to follow the rules of the game and has the power and the might to simply ignore that. And of course, the US is not innocent of ignoring international law. Let’s be fair here. But, we’ve also had harassment of regional states like Vietnam and Indonesia and Malaysia with their exploration of hydrocarbons, oil and gas in the maritime domain and harassment of oil rigs and oil exploration activity. So, it’s kind of spans a range of activities in the maritime domain, but again, it undermines the principles of sovereignty, and of course, maritime sovereignty and of course, that’s inherently destabilizing.

Gene Tunny  22:29

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

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Gene Tunny  23:03

Now back to the show.

I thought it was interesting before you mentioned this concept of grey zone activities. And I mean, they’re also engaging in applying economic pressure in a way, aren’t they? Or that they’re coming into these countries and they’re signing memorandums of understanding or they’re doing deals and then there’ll be some financing. But then what can happen is that if they don’t meet the repayments the country, then the Chinese can take it over or they can apply leverage on those countries. That’s a concern, isn’t it? So, there’s a whole range of things that the Chinese are doing, they’ve signed a deal; there’s some sort of deal with the Solomon Islands, you know what’s going on there? Does that fit in with a sort of a grander or a broader plan to dominate the Indo-Pacific?

Greta Nabbs-Keller  24:01

You’re talking about debt? What’s term debt trap diplomacy. And usually that some understood in terms of China’s expansive infrastructure and connectivity program, the Belt in Road Initiative or the VRI and indeed, there have been legitimate concerns about these massive infrastructure projects, extending from Africa and through, South East Asia, Pakistan, and the Pacific. The problem, particularly of debt exposure of these countries; they’re taking on debts for infrastructure projects that they’ll never be able to repay.

One of the key-case studies there is Sri Lanka actually, and the Hambantota port; I think I might have a pronunciation regret. Hambantota port facility in Sri Lanka, and exposure to too much debt and China can effectively take control of that strategic port facility, which of course, not only has, civil applications and uses, but strategic and military benefits, of course, by buying ceding control of that.

So, I think countries are increasingly aware of some of these risks. And I think the US has even the State Department has done work in some countries, including Myanmar, to revise the terms of those infrastructure projects, which had, incredible interest levels and unfavorable term. And some of them have actually successively, successfully been renegotiated.

I think what you, I don’t know if admires the right word, Gene, but certainly, I think if you’re talking about grand strategy and sweeping strategy, and coherent whole of government strategy from Beijing, using all its policy arms, from military, from economics, from political to technological, and so on. It’s a very strategic approach to, if it’s not dominance, to increasing economic influence and political leverage, and ultimately, being able to project military forces. It’s very sophisticated.

And we’ll turn to Honiara deal for a moment, the Solomon Islands China deal. I mean, that’s deeply concerning on a number of levels. First of all, for the Solomon Islands, people and parliament, it was not a transparent negotiation process. So, that’s been of great concern. There’s also a sense also from looks at Southeast Asia; it’s an indication of what will increasingly happen in the Pacific and some scholars and analysts call it elite capture that you’ll find in Southeast Asia, for example, that, Beijing’s ability to wield significant economic blood, yes, it has some respects, captured some of the region’s elites. But that doesn’t mean that there’s broader strategic distrust in in those countries in Iran. I think you’re seeing the same sort of thing with the Pacific that China can successfully co op some of the region’s elites. But there’s certainly lingering distrust and unease remains around in the region’s politics.

I think on the Honiara deal, what what’s most concerning to Australia as well, that Solomon Islands is only 2,000 kilometers from Cannes and if you look back to your history in the Second World War, and the Guadalcanal, fiercely contested battles between the US and Japan, principally. I mean, that was basically about, preventing Japan from gaining a strategic foothold and strategic access, that would cut the US off from allies like Australia, and indeed, if China was to increasingly base or rotate, military assets and military personnel through Honiara, that’s a deeply destabilizing concerning strategic development for Canberra.

Gene Tunny  28:42

Right. I mean, was that a failure of diplomacy on our part, or on the US’s part? It just seemed to take everyone by surprise that that came up. I was stunned when I heard it.

Greta Nabbs-Keller  28:53

Well, I think, again, about sophisticated grand strategy that I think Washington and Canberra and a number of countries are being outsmarted by Beijing on a number of levels. And there’s a lot in this and I won’t unpack it all, but I think the previous government could have done more. In some ways, I think during the Morrison government’s pacific step up, which I think was announced, if I recall correctly, around 2017, or 2018, was somewhat an admission of neglect. Now, I don’t want to overstate the neglect because obviously, both Southeast Asia and the Pacific have a fundamental, foreign policy importance to Australia. There’s no doubt about that. But I think the step up was a recognition in the context of growing geopolitical tensions Australia needed to do more with our Pacific neighbors, or as Canberra terms it, Pacific family.

I think the US has also realized recently that they need to do more in the Pacific, particularly in response to China. Fundamentally, Pacific countries like Southeast Asian countries want to be taken on their own terms, they want to be considered on their own terms. And they don’t want their relationships with Australia or Washington to be viewed; you’re only within the prism of sino US rivalries or geopolitical tensions. Yeah, they have their own fundamental development concerns, and as you know, Gene, the Pacific with existential threats from climate change, rising sea levels are, an abiding concern for Pacific Island countries.

The other thing I’d say about China and Bina Indonesian specialists have a number of decades, something I note with interest, Gene, is that the China builds the capacity and regional expertise of its diplomats. So, they have Chinese diplomats who are real Pacific hands, they have years of rotational postings through the Pacific, so they become Pacific experts. And they engender that kind of expertise and the context and the relationships that come with that. And I think Canberra could do more, I think, to build again, or rebuild from what’s a generalist type model with our diplomats. And when I say diplomats, I don’t only mean Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Representatives, I mean, all our agencies that are involved in international engagement and diplomacy. And as you know, treasury and finance as much Defence and Home Affairs, and others are posted into regional capitals. I think we could do more; we need a more sophisticated approach, we need to recalibrate our policy settings and more whole of government approach to regional engagement, and particularly on the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

Gene Tunny  32:01

It sounds like it. The way you were describing it earlier, it sounds as if China has this coherent strategy. So, there’s coordination between the different arms of the government, the different departments with state owned enterprises, perhaps? I mean, is it because they’re an authoritarian country with the President; I mean, is he President for life now or something?

Greta Nabbs-Keller  32:24

Constitutional change; I think there’s some more detail, I think, in the machinations that remain outstanding, whether that’s, guaranteed by the senior leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, but it seems that there were there was some agreement that his tenure would be ongoing, but I don’t know if that’s absolutely guaranteed genuinely in that context. But, it looks certainly a very, very strategic approach. I think you’re right, in an authoritarian kind of party-controlled state, centralized command, it is much easier, of course, to formulate and operationalize a very coherent kind of, strategy as opposed to democracies, where intrinsically, there’s more bargaining, there’s more difference, there’s more debate. And, indeed, the parliamentary system with the government and opposition that’s sort of; the foundations of Westminster democracy. So, I think it is much easier in a centralized party-controlled state to wield power and influence and sort of mobilize all your arms of government, and you mentioned State owned enterprise, for the purposes of very sophisticated strategic kind of policy approach.

Gene Tunny  34:00

Yeah, I found fascinating to that concept of; was it debt trap diplomacy? Yeah. Because I heard about what happened with Sri Lanka. I’m going to have to look more into that and probably cover it on the show. It’s fascinating and disturbing.

Right, my chat about Taiwan. How big a risk do you think that is? I mean, because that would be so disruptive to the global economy. I mean, we’ve seen what’s happened with Russia – Ukraine, but if China did invade Taiwan, I mean, it would have different impacts, but it’d be just as bad, probably worse. I mean, if you think about how much of the world’s industrial production has shifted to China, they make all the iPhones, they make computers. And then in Taiwan, it’s a major producer of semiconductors, I think, the chips that go into computers, I mean, this would be profoundly destabilizing.

Do you have a sense of how big a risk it is? And I mean, what would actually happen? Would the US respond? Would Australia respond? How would it all play out? I’m hoping it doesn’t happen; we’re all hoping it doesn’t happen. My feeling is that it’s unlikely but when I talked to people like Michael Knox, and then I, I listened to people like Ian Bremmer and other global commentators, I realized that the risk is much higher than I understand at the moment that I had expected.

Greta Nabbs-Keller  35:42

I think, again, I’m not a sonologist or China experts. I’m not privy to classified briefings. I’m not privy to the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party and their thinking, but in broad terms, of course, I follow these strategic developments in the Indo-Pacific.

I think there’s no secret that Beijing, and Xi Jinping is made no secret of seeking, as they term it, to reunify with Taiwan, but of course, Taiwan, strictly speaking, was never part of China. The Republic of China was originally under Japanese controllers; Formosa and then the Shang Kai Shek. After the  China’s civil war, the remnants of his army fled to Taiwan. And, if not a country formally, it’s a very successful; indeed, it is a country whether it’s formally recognized as a sovereign country in political terms is another aspect. It’s been a very successful democracy, very dynamically, economically, and of course, it’s a democracy. And I think Beijing’s made no secret, it seeks to peacefully reunify with Taiwan, but they have not ruled out military force to do so.

I’ve been present at the Shangri La dialogue in Singapore, which is the preeminent security defence dialogue in in in the Indo Pacific region based in Singapore at the Shangri La Hotel, every two years and there’s no secret that, senior Chinese officials and generals, speaking at that dialogue, make no bones about it, that Taiwan, is an inseparable part of China, and they will seek to reunify.

Now, the implications of China’s invasion of Taiwan are memes, as you say. I mean, it’s almost difficult to really comprehend the massive implications. I mean, we look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the flow on effects for the global economy, and indeed, food security for millions of people looks like they’re going to be threatened with food shortages, rising interest rates. And you’ve got the supply chain issues in China associated with COVID 19 lockdowns which are exacerbating that. And of course, you as an economist know very well about this.

Let’s look at some of the key implications, and there’d be many implications. But I think if China successfully invaded Taiwan, it fundamentally changes the Indo Pacific region, it gives China force projection. So, occupation of some of that first island chain, as we see that island chain along the eastern part of the South China Sea, it enables them to forward deploy military forces and to deny the US access, around the Philippine Sea, and more broadly threatens, they’re leaving implications, for us, us force disposition in Guam. Fundamentally, for Japan, this will be a profound concern for Japan because it effectively cut or deeply imperil Japan from US military assistance. So, in strategic terms, it provides Beijing with a forward presence to project military force and potentially control vital sea lanes and air space. So, I think also, it would have broader consequences, as we’ve seen it in Russia’s success in Ukraine, because it means authoritarian states can simply annex and occupy democratic ones. So, it’s more fundamentally a threat to democracies and those fundamental principles and values of democracies that we hold dear.

We hear about European values Gene, in the context of Ukraine, and Ukraine’s potential membership of the EU and NATO. And we talk about European values and what we’re talking about, there are the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy. And I think, more powerfully, in some respects, if the US did not successfully defend Taiwan, it’s the end of that post Second World War order, it’s very profound, it’s the end of basically US hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region, the US would lose credibility with allies and also mean the consolidation of a China centric order. And all that entails; I don’t know about you Gene, it doesn’t feel me, the prospect of living under a China dominated doesn’t fill me with great glee on a range of France from just environmental management. And I talked about maritime and the maritime domain about, exploitation of fisheries, you’ve got seabed mining emerging as a warrying prospect, but also, in terms of political liberties, surveillance, cyber intrusion, and coercion, it doesn’t fill me with confidence that if China could successfully take Taiwan, and then it would fundamentally impact on the balance of power and all that would entail.

I’d like to quote, Malcolm Turnbull actually on this, as what’s at stake here, more generally, with China’s revisionist tendencies, as Malcolm Turnbull, our former Prime Minister said, you, you can’t have a situation where the big fish eat the little fish and the little fish eat the shrimp. And that’s the basis of the international rules-based order, is making sure all sovereign states at least, have some equality in the international system. And I think China’s might and power is fundamentally eroding that rules-based order and this is the danger of highly destabilizing.

It’s hard to imagine; the economic implications are something you wouldn’t be able to talk about. But this would be profound, absolutely profound. And, the US has tripped itself up a little bit, particularly Biden on Taiwan, because there was a deliberate policy of ambiguity by Washington recognizing one China policy and ambiguity around whether the US would actually deploy military force to defend Taiwan. And I think Biden has, whether there were slips or not, is made it quite clear that the US will intervene, but I think it’s increasingly likely that we would be looking at essentially World War 3 if China did decide to attack Taiwan, because that would invoke Japanese involvement. And certainly, we’d be involved as well.

Gene Tunny  43:25

Right. Yeah. I mean, I just wonder what it would look like. Would it look like a block aid? I mean, I’m struggling to think of how they would respond; there’d be diplomatic pressure at first. I mean, we don’t know how it would go. Would the Chinese easily; would they take it over? I’m sure the Taiwanese have, I mean, they’ve probably been training for this, preparing for this. They would have their own military equipment to defend the island. So, it could be like Ukraine. I mean, that’s been a surprise that the Ukrainians have been able to push back on Russia so well. And I mean, the Americans have been supporting Taiwan, haven’t they? They’ve been arming the Taiwanese?

Greta Nabbs-Keller  44:13

Yeah. It’s been a number of congressional acts on Taiwan, the increasing number of US officials, much to Beijing’s consternation flying in into Taiwan. And that’s, of course, in China’s eyes, undermining one China principle. I mean, Taiwan, has some formidable military capability. So indeed, that the Taiwanese and Americans are looking very closely at Ukraine.

What has surprised strategic analysts about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that the Russian military was always considered, a formidable, and highly capable military force. But the Ukrainians in asymmetrically have been able to impose significant costs on Russia. You’ve got issues around morale, conscription with the Russian military, the use of drones; successful application of drones and sophisticated anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft missiles. Ukrainians have; they’re defending their homeland and they’ve done surprisingly well.

You could imagine, Gene, this would be quite devastating. I think the inevitability of war, as sad as it seems, it’s very hard to see this not being on a trajectory towards war, because there’s so much at stake as, as I stated, for the US and other countries in Taiwan. And from China’s perspective, they fundamentally see Taiwan as part of the Chinese mainland and homeland. Again, what makes it dangerous is there’s a sense of domestic political legitimacy in reunifying, with Taiwan for Xi Jinping regime, which perhaps makes it more dangerous and as economic trends and deterioration, the global economic environment will buffets China, as it will other states. Does that make Xi Jinping, more inclined or less inclined to consider an attack on Taiwan?

The longer the US leaves it, China grows inexorably stronger and more military capable as the years tick by. So, there’s very, very high risks at the moment, Gene, of a conflict or regional conflict emerging. And that’s what worries countries in Southeast Asia feel so much, you feel sort of, pawns and caught in the middle of these kinds of dynamics?.

Gene Tunny  47:12

So we’re recording this on the 23rd of June, 2022. On 22nd of June, 2022, CNN reported China sends dozens of war planes into skies near Taiwan. So, it’s acts like this that make people very concerned about the future.

Can I ask about the other sort of players in the region, the major countries, Indonesia and India? So where do they fit in this because they’ve traditionally been nonaligned. We’ve been in, was it Bandung? Did have a famous conference there. We were there on a course for the Indonesian Ministry of Finance and stayed in the Padma on the Gorge there, which was beautiful. But there was, was it the East West Conference? I’m trying to remember it. There’s that old colonial building in downtown Bandung where they had a famous conference back in the 50s.

Greta Nabbs-Keller  48:09

You right Jean, that’s the Asia Africa conference of 1955, still lauded as one of Indonesia’s greatest diplomatic achievements and out of the Asia-Africa conference, which was essentially, that was in a cold war environment, but it brought the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa together. And it was the birth of the nonaligned movement. Of course, these countries who are effectively post-colonial states, didn’t want to be two sides between the US and the Soviet Union; a Soviet bloc in the Cold War, and they wanted to forge an independent path. And out of that, emanated the peaceful principles of coexistence and it was historically a significant development in an international political history.

There’s one thing I just want to pick up from your previous comment about the Chinese planes, PLA Air Force planes are flying into Taiwan border area air identification zone. This is what makes it so dangerous too, it’s not just the rhetoric, and the polemic around Taiwan, It’s China’s increasing willingness to engage in that kind of conduct both in the maritime domain and the air domain that make the risk of miscalculation and escalation so high, you can foresee a situation where, missiles are locked on and in this game of brinkmanship, you can see how something could go terribly wrong and escalate very quickly. And indeed, the ABCs reported this morning on more details of PLA Air Force interception of rafts Australian Air Force planes are flying out from the Philippines over the South China Sea around the Paracel Islands, challenging them in some very dangerous midair maneuvers. Things are escalating.

Now, Indonesia and India, very interesting states – pivotal states, of course. India is the second largest country in the world in population terms. And Indonesia, many people overlook is the fourth largest country in population terms and the world’s third largest democracy. So, India and Indonesia are pivotal states to the Indo-Pacific. And you’ll see India’s been very, interesting and you’d said, of course, they’re both formally nonaligned. India and Indonesia have a lot of historical and cultural similarities.

India, of course, has become increasingly concerned about Chinese actions on its Himalayan border there around Ladakh, in the line of actual control. There’s been physical skirmishes up there between PLA and Indian troops that saw at least, I think around 25, roughly, Indian soldiers killed, and the Chinese China never released the number of their troops killed in the physical skirmish up there.

So, that’s been of increasing concern. And certainly, India’s responded with increasing its military presence at Himalayan border significantly. They’ve banned dozens and dozens of Chinese apps. I’m talking about mobile phone apps around the risks of surveillance and intelligence collection, and intrusion.

And you’ve seen India move; although it’s formerly nonaligned, India has moved much closer to Washington, and indeed Japan and Australia, as those four states of the quadrilateral security dialogue or the quad, look to act in coalition and it’s not a formal military alliance with note, because of the nonaligned status of India. But you see, you’re increasing coordination between the quad members, around vaccine diplomacy and vaccine infrastructure, economic technological cooperation.

Now, the military component of the quad is probably the Malabar naval exercises. There’s sort of a tenuous link with the quad and as I said, the quadrilateral security is a dialogue. It’s not a military path or alliance, but perhaps the Malabar exercises for nation exercises and conducted in the Indian Ocean between those four states. You can see is the kind of the military defence component of the quad.

Now Indonesia, of course, is a country that’s been very much at the forefront of my research and professional interests for decades. Indonesia is an interesting country. It’s again, formerly nonaligned, it’s effectively the largest state in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Southeast Asia and effectively the veto actor. Indonesia has a foreign policy doctrine, a free and active foreign policy doctrine, and it seeks strategic autonomy and to manage the influence of what it considers external powers and I mean, the powers external to the Southeast Asian region. Although China’s proximate in Indonesia’s foreign policy conceptions, China, Japan, US and other countries are external to those ASEAN states.

And I think, Indonesia and many of the major Africa; the go back to Bandung Conference were born out. They were decolonized within this Cold War, polarized global political context, and they don’t want to be seen as pawns in great power rivalry. So, this is increasing policy complexity to Jakarta.

You’re acutely worried about rising geopolitical tensions and what that means for decades of stability and growth in Southeast Asia and you know, ASEAN as a bloc is a significant economy collectively. Over around 650 million people in ASEAN; significant collective strength in ASEAN.

So, Indonesia hedges and balances; it has close and constructive relations with China and very close and constructive relations with Washington, and of course, Canberra and Tokyo. Tokyo, and one cannot forget Japan; Japan is still a significant global economic power. And Japan before China was the engine of growth in Southeast Asia, for decades. It was Japanese investment – FDIs, you know, Gene, in Southeast Asia that really spurred, Southeast Asia’s growth there, for decades.

Gene Tunny  55:40

And so now China has taken up that role, has it? Within Southeast Asia, it’s engaging a lot of foreign investment. And so that’s giving them political leverage..

Greta Nabbs-Keller  55:51

Absolutely. As I said, don’t underestimate Japan, as an economic partner and political partner for Southeast Asia. But of course, like China, is a major trading partner of all Southeast Asian states.

It’s much more China and Japan are both very good in comparison to Washington I’d say through ASEAN mechanisms are more integrated than the US is into Southeast Asia, through ASEAN Plus mechanisms and economically. And also, I’d say, Gene, in the context of the COVID pandemic, as young countries turn to Beijing, because Beijing was able to roll out very quickly; the Sinovac vaccine was most readily available and cheaper to Southeast Asia, then, AstraZeneca or Pfizer, and even though Southeast Asian states knew that the efficacy of those vaccines was higher than the Sinovac or the Chinese manufactured variants, China, to be fair, has been able to offer the public, goods and the investment vaccines that the education opportunities that US has neglected to do, and I think you see, increasingly in Washington’s or regional policies that they’re looking to make up ground, and that it’s not only about the importance of military partnerships between Washington and Southeast Asia.

And I must say that for Indonesia, for Jakarta, Washington is a much more important strategic military partner than China. They know they have to do more work in infrastructure, in trade, in economics and climate finance to basically compete with China in the region. The US knows that too. And of course, Australia as well.

Gene Tunny  57:50

I think they’re finally woken up to the threat in the region. Or it’s become more apparent with what happened in Solomon Islands, because they sent one of the very senior State Department officials over, didn’t they? To go and visit Honiara, if I remember. Yes, I just remembered, we’ll wrap up soon. But I just remembered when we’re talking about the FDI, the Foreign Direct Investment, we were talking about Bandung before, there was that rail line; they were going to rebuild that line or was it a fast train high-speed rail from Jakarta to Bandung? That’s a Chinese Indonesian Consortium. But now, that’s been thrown into disarray, because the Indonesians are looking at moving the capital away from Jakarta, because apparently, Jakarta is sinking isn’t it? Do you know what’s going on there?

Greta Nabbs-Keller  58:42

Yeah. That’s been really interesting, Gene. As you know, we both worked on infrastructure courses and finance public policy courses that considered the Jakarta bundle high-speed rail. And, in many respects, I think the problem has been at Indonesia and to be fair, rather than China’s. Their huge problems from the start, I think when President Joko Widodo Giancoli turned over the soil; the groundbreaking ceremony, which was a number of years ago, I think even back to around 2017, 2018 If I’m not mistaken. There have been problems from land acquisition problems, these transport infrastructure corridors. They might identify the anticipation; but the land acquisition has not been resolved, which is one of the fundamental impediments to infrastructure projects in Indonesia, more generally.

 So, there’s been a range of problems with the Jakarta bundle high-speed rail. Part of it is built, I’m not up with the absolute latest, but I know there have been ongoing challenges which are blown out the timeline for delivery of that infrastructure project.

You mentioned about the move or relocation of the Indonesian capital to East Kalimantan Province, which many people know as Borneo, Kalimantan is Indonesian. Borneo, of course, you have Brunei and the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak in the northern part of Borneo. There’s fundamentally some environmental challenges with Jakarta, it’s a capital that is widely understood to be to be sinking. Anyone who’s been to Jakarta knows that there are infrastructure challenges, some of the basic infrastructure has not been updated since the Dutch colonial times. There’re issues around governance and corruption and things.

So, Jokowi, the infrastructure president has announced and that’s been recently legislated to relocate the capital to East Kalimantan, a very, very ambitious project. And I think there are also benefits and risks, although it’s going to be a smart and Green City. I think there are broad implications for the environment and biodiversity and ecology up there. Whether this will be a white elephant project, Gene, which won’t outlast Joko Widodo’s presidency; we know the presidential elections will be in 2024. Whether this capital, I guess what I would say, if you take the, at a micro scale, the Jakarta bundle high speed rail project and extrapolate that to a much more ambitious infrastructure project in the new capital city, how successful and how protracted and how problematic? Will it be? It remains to be seen?

Gene Tunny  1:01:59

Yeah. One of the things that economists have observed over the years is that any mega project brings big risks of cost blowouts. So, you just see it all the time. I’ll have to cover that on the show in the future. Right oh! Greta, this has been fabulous. I think we’d like to wrap up have picked your brain for nearly an hour. Any. Any final thoughts? Before we wrap up? Anything we should we should have covered?

Greta Nabbs-Keller  1:02:27

No, look, I think you could talk for hours about strategic developments and regional dynamics, Gene, and there’s so much going on at the moment. It’s barely possible to keep abreast of all the developments. So, I’d like to thank you very much for having me today.

Gene Tunny  1:02:46

Oh, pleasure. Where can we find more about your work? Do you publish your work on, is it LowE Institute from time to time or SB?

Greta Nabbs-Keller  1:02:56

Yeah, I publish but it’s on that SB’s blog, the strategist and the Low E Institute for International Policy. The interpreter recently I’ve had some analysis published with the conversation and Australian foreign affairs, AFA on Indonesia and particularly the new government, Albanese governments, Indonesia policy settings.

Gene Tunny  1:03:20

Ah, right. Okay, I forgot to ask about that. I guess it’s early days. So, I’ll put a link to your article in the show notes so people can have a read of that.

Very good. Okay. Dr. Greta Nabbs-Keller, thanks so much for being on the program, really enjoyed it. Thank you. Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Till next week, goodbye.

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Thanks to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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What is the Economy? And Why It Matters to You | EP121

What is the Economy? And Why It Matters to You is a new book from UK economics writers Beth Leslie and Joe Richards, who are interviewed in episode 121 of Economics Explored. Legendary music producer Brian Eno has endorsed the book, writing “This clear and comprehensible book is long overdue.”

About this episode’s guests – Beth Leslie and Joe Richards

Beth Leslie is a writer and editor. She became interested in economics when she realised it was a great way to better understand the world around her. Beth is currently the Editor for Economy, a charity that seeks to make economics more understandable for everyone.

Joe Richards is an author, educator and economist. After the financial crash of 2008, Joe’s family lost their business and the home they grew up in. Spotting a lack of public understanding in the economy, Joe’s journey in economics began. Joe campaigned to make economics more accessible for everyone, working with organizations from the Bank of England and BBC News, to local schools and the UK government.

Where you can purchase What is the Economy? And Why it Matters to You:

US https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/what-is-the-economy-9781786995605/

UK https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/what-is-the-economy-9781786995605/

Australia https://www.booktopia.com.au/what-is-the-economy–beth-leslie/book/9781786995605.html

Thanks to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.