labor Shifting Patterns in Global Manufacturing
The 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Beijing on October 18 witnessed the usual smiles and handshakes. But China’s economic landscape, dependent on robust supply-chain networks, is facing turbulent times.
The US-led trade war had already disrupted Chinese industry and supply chains before the Covid-19 pandemic further backlogged ports and exacerbated disruptions. President Joe Biden’s administration has meanwhile continued to expand policies restricting China’s access to the US market and technologies, including new restrictions on advanced chip exports announced just one day before the BRI summit.
Foreign direct investment into China also plummeted by 43% in 2022, while the United States has persuaded allies to curtail their economic collaborations with China. For instance, Italy, which joined China’s BRI in 2019, announced its withdrawal from the project this April.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands began imposing restrictions on semiconductor exports to China in March. The 2018 arrest of two Canadian businessmen, widely perceived as retaliation for Canada’s detention of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou at Washington’s request, has made foreign executives increasingly hesitant to travel to China.
The greatest concern for Beijing, however, is the threat to China’s manufacturing and export-led economic model, which has driven China’s growth for most of the 21st century. In the first half of 2023, China’s share of US goods imports stood at 13.3%, a decline from 21.6% in 2017, marking the lowest figure since 2003.
Economic decoupling initiatives have also prompted Western companies to establish manufacturing infrastructure in friendly or nearby countries, often referred to as near-shoring or friend-shoring.
Countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, India, Mexico and others are vying for Western companies’ attention, offering subsidies, tax breaks, and other incentives. The newest iPhone was assembled in India, for example, while more than half of Nike’s shoes are now made in Vietnam.
Mexico steps up
However, it is Mexico that appears poised to reap the most benefits from this “lifetime opportunity,” according to Bank of America. Its proximity to the US and the USMCA free-trade agreement with the US and Canada has driven American companies to ramp up production in Mexico.
Nonetheless, as the “world’s factory,” China’s dominance in manufacturing remains stable enough to support its economy. Its share of global manufacturing actually grew from 26% in 2017 to 31∞ in 2021 (aided by the global decline in manufacturing in the years leading up to and during the Covid-19 pandemic), whereas India, Mexico and Vietnam contributed only 3%, 1.5% and 0.6% respectively.
China’s resilience to global supply-chain shifts can be attributed to strategic infrastructure investments that have streamlined its manufacturing and export operations. Efficient ports, extensive highways, reliable rail systems, well-established industrial parks, stable governance, a large working-age population, and other factors set China apart from potential competitors.
Although the value of manufacturing in the US has risen and 800,000 manufacturing jobs have been created over the last two years, for example, this has not kept up with job growth in other industries, and manufacturing’s share of US GDP has continued to decline. There are also fears that the US will have a shortage of 2.1 million skilled manufacturing workers by 2030.
India faces challenges related to competition from cheaper imports, high input costs, taxes, and regulatory hurdles, while Mexico contends with corruption and instability from cartels and Vietnam grapples with power outages and bureaucratic red tape.
Resistance to change
Instead, many of China’s manufacturing competitors have opted to collaborate with China, reinforcing traditional supply-chain dependencies that Washington is striving to break. This is exemplified most clearly in Mexico, where the advantageous conditions for US companies have also made it an attractive destination for Chinese companies seeking a nearby gateway to the US market.
Remarkably, 80% of the land leased to foreign companies in Mexican industrial parks is now in the hands of Chinese enterprises (compared with 15% for US companies), allowing Chinese goods to be delivered for final assembly before being exported to the US.
This phenomenon extends beyond Mexico. At the end of 2022, the US Department of Commerce discovered that major solar suppliers in Southeast Asia were barely altering Chinese products before they were sent to the US. Across the region, Chinese green tech companies are making significant inroads into the manufacturing infrastructure.
After spending billions of dollars building economic relations with their Chinese counterparts, US companies have also resisted cutting ties with their Chinese partners. A 2021 Federal Reserve research note suggested that many are underreporting their imports from China to evade tariffs imposed by Washington.
Others are encouraging their Chinese partners to establish factories in North America. Additionally, the cancellation of programs (or those slated to expire in the next few years) allowing goods from many developing nations to enter the US duty-free may leave room for China to step in as a preferred source for US distributors.
Despite the limitations of Western decoupling policies, it’s worth noting that China is also working toward a form of decoupling to reduce its dependence on the West. Announced in 2015, the Made in China (MIC25) initiative seeks to eliminate Chinese companies’ reliance on foreign nations for critical technologies and products.
Policies also continue to be introduced to expand China’s domestic market to compensate for restrictions on overseas markets.
Adjustments to Chinese policy
China’s economy will continue to be characterized by strengths and weaknesses. The rising wages of Chinese workers have steadily eroded the international competitiveness of the country’s shrinking labor pool, while an ongoing property crisis has shaken faith in China’s domestic economy. Moreover, Beijing has become less liberal with capital, opting instead to recover outstanding loans from the BRI.
However, Chinese officials and businesses are increasingly lobbying local governments with “small but beautiful projects” that negate the need for consultation with more suspicious national leaders. China also remains crucial in areas such as rare-earth minerals and is expanding its role in manufacturing higher-end products, from aviation to green tech, to compete with high-tech Western firms.
Chinese endeavors in Latin America and Southeast Asia to adopt Chinese supply chains also position it to sell to these markets.
Although it may seem that we have “already hit or passed the peak share of China in world manufacturing,” no other country has or is projected to rival China’s manufacturing power and export networks. Furthermore, neither China nor the West is able or willing to sever their economic ties.
Even amid the collapse in relations between the West and Russia since 2022, Russian energy has continued to flow to Western countries, Western technology has continued to enter Russia, and Western companies that have said they are leaving Russia have remained.
The massive disruptions required for true economic decoupling from China are unpalatable to the public and the private sector. This reality is reflected in the shifting language of US and EU officials, who now emphasize de-risking instead of decoupling from China.
Chinese and Western companies instead look to continue bypassing restrictions and conducting business, reflecting the resilience of the Chinese manufacturing sector and making it clear that US-Western economic co-dependency is a formidable bond that won’t be easily broken.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.