Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies across virtually every goods-based industry have been re-examining their reliance on China, which accounts for roughly 28% of global manufacturing and is a leading source of critical commodities such as rare earth minerals and ingredients for pharmaceutical products.
The China re-think didn’t start with COVID-19
Well before the pandemic, many companies relying on Chinese producers for finished goods and parts were looking to de-risk by finding alternative suppliers in other countries. Why? Geopolitical tensions, trade disputes, and rising costs in China.
Trade tensions and national security concerns have led to a wave of legislation in the United States, where there are more than 60 bills pending in Congress aimed at changing economic relations with China. In addition, U.S. brands and manufacturers comparing China’s labor costs to those in Mexico have seen China’s labor costs rising faster. That has eroded China’s competitiveness and made Mexico more attractive.
Outward migration of production was underway before the pandemic because tariffs imposed by the U.S. and China had increased supply chain costs by up to 10% for as much as 40% of companies sourcing in China, according to Kamala Raman, a senior director analyst at Gartner.
The U.S., Germany, Japan and other countries have expressed strategic concerns about overreliance on China for critical products: 5G telecommunications gear, semiconductors, steel, cranes, electrical power equipment and more. McKinsey identified 180 different products for which one country — most often China — accounts for more than 70% of the global export market. Many of the products are chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
Intel recently divested itself of a business in politically sensitive memory chips because the business was heavily dependent on China sales. Samsung and others have cited cost considerations for production moves or asset sales.
The pandemic is turning concern to action
China’s assertive response to the pandemic included lengthy, mandatory lockdowns that froze manufacturing and stranded global cargo shipments for several weeks in the spring of 2020. That caused unprecedented disruption in supply chains and led to shortages of everything from household goods and consumer electronics to industrial components and healthcare products.
The pandemic exposed the fragility of sprawling global supply chains. In one recent survey, one-quarter of businesses sourcing from China indicated plans to transition all or some of their operations to other countries over the next three years. In a Gartner survey, an even higher percentage – 33% — said they intend to pull manufacturing or sourcing out of China in the next two to three years. Sixty-four percent of North American manufacturing and industrial professional said they were likely to bring manufacturing production and sourcing back to North America, in a Thomas Publishing survey.
Look for knock-on effects
Any exodus from China will ripple around the world so expect huge and uneven consequences in other markets. The modest movement to other production and sourcing locations has already led to overheated labor markets and infrastructure bottlenecks in other Asian manufacturing countries.
In some cases, the effort to build supply chain resilience is felt most in far off warehousing and distribution hubs, where companies are adding safety stock or shifting from just-in-time inventory to beefed up “just-in-case” models.
Sourcing diversification is altering the flow of goods into U.S. ports. West Coast ports continue to have a lock on ocean traffic from China and serve as the primary gateway for Chinese goods. But now East Coast ports are receiving higher volumes of containerized ocean goods because, in addition to vessels traversing traditional routes from Europe, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, they receive cargo from Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and India, which have found it economical to ship via the Indian Ocean and Suez Canal.
In turn, the shift toward the East Coast has driven up industrial real estate prices along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. as companies scramble to set up distribution hubs and e-commerce facilities.
Japan is pushing an ‘Exit China’ strategy
At least 87 Japanese companies have shuttered production in China, moving it back home to Japan or relocating to Southeast Asian countries in response to incentives offered under the Japanese government’s $2 billion Exit China program. Nikkei Asia says Japanese companies “wary of rising labor costs in China and geopolitical factors had already begun reorganizing production prior to the pandemic.”
Japanese investment in Southeast Asian manufacturing – specifically in Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand – was already increasing at twice the rate of investment in China.
It’s not just China
Supply chain risk has been rising for years as costly disruptions become regular occurrences.
McKinsey says weather disasters alone accounted for 40 separate incidents involving damage in excess of $1 billion in 2019. Add the risk from trade disputes, retaliatory tariffs — and a doubling of cyberattacks in a single year at a time when companies are increasing their reliance on digital systems.
Geopolitical risk is unavoidable. Today, 80% of trade involves countries with declining stability scores. “Companies can now expect supply chain disruptions lasting a month or longer to occur every 3.7 years, and the most severe events take a major financial toll,” McKinsey says.
Economic trauma caused by COVID-19 will initially shrink the universe of suppliers, not expand it. And new layers of protectionism will leave companies with even fewer choices of supply because they will rob efficient producers — in China and elsewhere — of their competitiveness and make them too expensive.
Uprooting from China is not as easy as it seems. Forty years after it began modernizing, China today holds advantages available nowhere else: unmatched scale; abundant skilled and unskilled labor; sophisticated automation, engineering and sciences; world-class infrastructure and logistics; closely synchronized and integrated supplier networks both in-country and across Asia.
Twenty-five years ago, leaving China meant leaving a low-cost manufacturing center. Today, for some multi-nationals, it would mean giving up on the world’s largest consumer market and an economy growing at twice the rate of the United States before the COVID-19 crisis.
Willy Shih, a Harvard Business School professor, says: “There’s a lot of impatience about this supply chain resilience and reshoring. I like to remind people that it took 20 to 25 years for China to capture the supply chain for many products. And if you want to move the supply chain, we’re not talking about something that will happen in a year, or in a couple of years.”