Vietnam – The Emerging Asian Tiger
This is a race not formally announced but in which every south-east Asian country and prominently India in south Asia are keen participants. The competition is about getting as big a slice as possible of manufacturing capacity touching electronics and telephony to engineering products that is gradually being moved from China by MNCs, principally headquartered in the US and Japan to relatively low cost regions, as part of the China plus one policy. Saving in cost is definitely a consideration for paring MNC manufacturing exposure in China.
Consider Vietnam, which because of state focus on education, boasts of a plentiful supply of educated, hardworking and disciplined workers needed by new generation industries. What further draws MNCs to employ Vietnamese workers is their availability at almost half the cost of Chinese peers in their country’s coastal regions. Manufacturing wages in Vietnam remain the lowest in the entire south-east Asia barring the Philippines.
Cost advantage was certainly not at the top of mind of policy makers of countries now in pursuit of decoupling from China wherefrom earlier huge investments were supporting capacity building of many industries, including hi-tech ones in China and in the process becoming too critically dependent on a single supply source. Geopolitical considerations, growing frictions in trade relations leading countries such as the US, EU and India hauling China to WTO (World Trade Organisation) for dumping of a number of products, including steel and aluminium, arbitrary Chinese policies that became palpably evident during Covide19 pandemic management and reservations about the uncommonly strict data privacy law have underpinned the need to promote investment in other Asian countries that will supplement or cut capacity in China.
Over the years supply chains based in Asia have expanded well beyond China to include Vietnam, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. “We are supplying finished products in large volumes to the US and EU. However, for components and parts we continue to remain dependent on China. The much publicised decoupling from the Chinese economy and all the efforts to expand the supply chain beyond the world’s second largest economy may not have hurt China that much till now. Whatever that may be, Vietnam’s reputation is no longer based on as a global supplier of clothing to American and European companies but of products based on very high technology,” a local head of a leading MNC told this reporter on condition of anonymity.
Because of its strategic location sharing terrestrial and maritime borders with China being wooed by both Washington and Beijing and a population of over 100 million with a per capita income of $4,163.5 in 2022 (source World Bank), it is only natural that MNCs, including the ones dealing with pinnacle of technology, will have a growing presence in Vietnam. From FMCG groups Unilever to Nestle to Procter Gamble to IT companies Microsoft to IBM and Samsung among electronics items manufacturers are finding their businesses growing here.
In Apple’s diversification of supply sources from China, the two countries figuring prominently are Vietnam and India. For Cupertino (California) based Apple, makers of iPhone and MacBook, shifting geopolitical tides, triggered by among other issues President Xi Jinping’s instruction to his military to be prepared to invade Taiwan by 2027 and President Biden’s resolve to defend Taiwan in such circumstances, it has become imperative to ensure that iPhone supplies are not disturbed. Therefore, the company with market capitalisation of $2.87 trillion is constrained to hedge its bet on Vietnam and India by supporting suppliers there.
For example, the Tata group, which already owns an iPhone factory in Karnataka acquired from Taiwanese company Wistron will commission a greenfield iPhone assembly plant at Hosur in Tamil Nadu in the next 18 months. Going beyond assembly, the group has started making iPhone enclosures or metal casings.
In the meantime, Taiwan based electronics manufacturing group Foxconn is successfully running an iPhone assembly unit, one of the largest for Apple outside China, at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu. Production now at 6 million pieces is to be rapidly expanded. In this context, the Wall Street Journal says in a recent report: “Apple and its suppliers aim to build more than 50 million iPhones in India annually within the next two to three years, with additional tens of millions of units planned after that.”
In India suppliers to Apple, however, have to contend with poor infrastructure, logistical challenges getting slowly resolved and trade union issues. Interestingly, China in spite of staying in command of the communist party is spared labour problems. Whatever the challenges of being here, Apple CEO Tim Cook’s visited India in April last and met prime minister Narendra Modi to convey the company’s commitment to be part of this country’s digital journey. In the meantime, the two flagship Apple stores in Mumbai and Delhi that Cook opened have in a short time proved a roaring success. In Vietnam too, Apple products have caught the imagination of the people, especially the young, following the launch of online Apple store and backup service from the online team.
In terms of range products made for Apple by its suppliers, Vietnam has remained nonpareil in Asia outside China. The bright spot that Vietnam is for Apple in its China decoupling move will very substantially increase capacity to make IPads, Apple watches, MacBooks and AirPods by 2025 considering fresh capacity building investments being proposed by existing and new suppliers. For example, Foxconn is to make growing volumes of iPad and MacBook in Vietnam. As the company is in the process to invest $270 million to build a new factory there, one of its subsidiaries is to exclusively supply made in Vietnam servers for Apple to train and test AI services. A shining example of going up in the production value chain. The Taiwanese Compal Electronics, a major supplier to Apple, is too rapidly expanding capacity in Vietnam.
Not only in IT and electronics, Vietnam, according to CLSA, a bank, received in the first three quarters of 2023 foreign direct investment (FDI), which as a share of GDP was twice as large as in Indonesia, the Philippines or Thailand. Whatever that is, neither Hanoi nor New Delhi will not be able to wish away the fact that for many critical components, the two countries continue to remain hopelessly dependent on supplies from China. FDI that propels growth as also supply of technologies fell 16 per cent for India to $70.9 billion in 2022-23 from $84.84 billion in the previous year.
In contrast, a much smaller country Vietnam found FDI rising to $36.6 billion in 2023, a jump of 32.1 per cent year on year. This incidentally happened to be the highest FDI received by Vietnam in the past five years, underlining the destination’s attractiveness to foreign investors, especially the ones keen to reduce their Chinese profile.
The more important considerations that have helped Vietnam to attract FDI from a number of destinations – in 2023, the country received investments from as many as 111 countries – are: adroitness with which the regime continues to handle two antagonists, namely, the US and China; over three and a half decades of opening of the economy and reforms since the end of collectivism; building of human resources to support investment in new generation industries; and incentive package for foreign investors. But now inertia has set in in decision making, specially when it comes to giving approvals to new projects for fear of being hauled up on corruption charges. The inactiveness of politicians and bureaucrats at every level is due to the launch of anticorruption drive some time ago.
Incidentally, President Nguyen Xuan Phuc was forced to resign in January 2023 along with some ministers as part of an anti-corruption campaign. No wonder The Economist highlights “big risks to Vietnam’s tigerish emergence. Its geopolitical sweet spot may not last – especially if Donald Trump returns to power and takes exception to the size of America’s bilateral trade deficit with it. The beneficial demography underlying its growth is weakening.” But the most disturbing phenomenon, according to the magazine, is the rulers’ “resistance to political reform.”
(The writer was lately in Vietnam)
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