Page last updated at 22:28 GMT, Monday, 10 May 2010 23:28 UK

Will Australia's mining boom turn to bust?

By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Australia's economic juggernaut, which is powered by mineral exports to China, could be heading for a spectacular crash within a generation, analysts warn.

Truck at Sino Iron mine project in western Australia
China is Australia's biggest buyer of iron ore

The concern is that Australia has become over-reliant on sales of iron ore, coal and natural gas to the Chinese, which have the potential to expose the country to dangerous fluctuations in commodity prices and demand.

"It is a problem because this is a sector [mining] that has booms and busts," explains Frank Gelber, the chief economist at Australian research firm, BIS Shrapnel.

"We are tying our horse to a rail which is a pretty wild ride."

Mr Gelber is alarmed that other parts of the domestic economy have been run down amid the stampede to cash in on the great Chinese resource bonanza.

"For the moment, the prosperity of this sector is pretty much assured, in the next few years at least," he told the BBC.

"But if, in 10 years from now, there is a weakening in demand for resources or we have oversupplied markets, then we won't have any of the old industries to go back to and it could be a disaster for Australia."

Cauldron of growth

The roaring trade in natural resources is keeping the Australian dollar high. This has eroded the competitiveness of domestic exporters in areas such as manufacturing, agriculture, education and tourism - areas that are, according to Mr Gelber, slowly wasting away.

Damien Koh
The Chinese people are very protective of their values
Damien Koh, student at University of Western Australia

China is Australia's biggest trading partner and its largest buyer of iron ore.

The government in Canberra, however, has been keen to stress that ties with Beijing run far deeper than just digging valuable nuggets out of the ground.

Trade Minister Simon Crean insisted that Australian construction, finance and retail firms were well placed to prosper in the cauldron of China's red-hot economic growth.

"There's a simplistic view that all China requires of Australia is its resource base. That's true, but it's not the complete picture," said Mr Crean.

Next generation

For the next wave of entrepreneurs, China represents both tantalising possibilities beyond mining and immense challenges.

Earlier this month, students from four continents gathered at the University of Sydney to share ideas at a global enterprise forum.

With bright minds present from Yorkshire, North America, Nanjing in China and Australia, much of the talk centred on the world's most populous nation.

Richard Seymour
We have always been hostage to these boom-and-bust markets
Richard Seymour, University of Sydney

"China is opening up a lot more for Western business. The consumers really like Westernised goods," said Elyce Burek, 22, from Alberta in Canada, who has ambitions to be a consultant to the travel industry.

Terence Loughlin, 35, a postgraduate student from Sydney who works for a marketing agency, told the BBC that success in China would be hard to achieve.

"I have a couple of business ideas that could be applicable to China, but there is a lot of risk," he said.

"I don't speak Mandarin or Cantonese and I don't have the contacts. I take my hat off to anyone who has a go, because I think there are some wonderful opportunities for entrepreneurs in China."

Need to adapt

Gauging and acclimatising to the unique pulse of business in China is the key to success, according to Damien Koh, 23, from Singapore, a commerce student at the University of Western Australia.

"The Chinese people are very protective of their values and it is a very different society based on culture and family," he said.

"So, for us to go in, we who know nothing about their society, it comes as a shock to them."

A truck in a mine in Australia
Chinese demand for iron ore is boosting the Australian dollar

As the mining boom accelerates, there is a feeling in academic circles that Australia's relatively small economy has always had a knack of adapting to shifting world demand.

"In Australia, we have always been hostage to these boom-and-bust markets, whether it is through rural commodities or mining with Japan, China or South Korea," explained Richard Seymour from the University of Sydney.

"Whenever there have been shocks to different parts of Asia, Australia's economy has shifted with remarkable flexibility.

"Yes, the [mining] boom will come to an end, but hopefully, the economy will be flexible enough that we won't be left just staring at the dust and wondering where everyone has gone."



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