Trade has always played a key role in the economic development of Australia. However, Australia’s trade partners as well as the trade composition has undergone a significant change over the last 100 years.
During the early 1900s, Australia mainly imported commodities such as textiles, clothing, footwear, iron and steel, machinery, timber and sugar. Australia’s merchandize imports grew from USD 3.9 billion to USD 9.6 billion during 1901 to 1944-45. UK was the major exporter of merchandise goods to Australia during this period and had a share of 40-60% of total imports of Australia.
Post the Second World War, petroleum oils, vehicles and parts were also added to the import mix. UK continued to be the key source of imports till it was replaced by USA in 1970s.
USA continued as the largest source of imports to Australia until the 1980s, when Japan overtook it for a brief period of 3 years. USA again overtook Japan and remained as the largest import source for Australia until the mid-2000s, after which China took the lead position. Even today, China continues to be the largest source of imported goods to Australia.
Australia’s imports from the world in 2018 stood at USD 235.5 billion78. The key commodities imported were petroleum and mineral oils, passenger and commercial vehicles, ships and floating structures and pharmaceutical products.
In case of exports, Australia mainly exported agricultural commodities from 1900s to 1950s. UK was the largest export partner of Australia during this period. Australia witnessed slow growth in exports from 1900s to 1950s due to its heavy dependence on the agriculture cycle, which was severely disrupted during the world wars.
Post the Second World War, Australia’s exports of resources and manufactured products increased while that of agricultural commodities declined. Japan replaced UK to become Australia’s largest export market during the 1970s. The Australian economy was deregulated in the 1980s, which led to a surge in Australia’s exports. During the 1980s, Australia also witnessed a strong growth in exports of services with personal travel services and business services becoming the two key types of services that were exported.
China overtook Japan to become Australia’s largest export partner in 2009-10 and continues to remain the largest export partner today. In 2018, Australia’s exports to the world stood at ~USD 254 billion, with minerals, fuels, ores, gems & jewellery and meat being the key export commodities.
78 UN Comtrade