Throwaway lines are among my favorite aspects of opinion writing, largely because in a simple, usually brief, and almost by definition understated sentence or two they can thoroughly debunk or at least gravely weaken shibboleths that have reigned virtually unchallenged for decades. And Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar had a doozy yesterday.
As is well known by anyone who’s been closely following the development of President Trump’s trade policies and the uproar they’ve triggered, some of the biggest fears surrounding the prospect of the “trade wars” they’re deemed all too likely to ignite concern the impact on global supply chains. As explained this morning by Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman;
“[C]orporations have invested trillions based on the assumption that an open world trading system, permitting value-added chains that sprawl across national borders, was going to be a permanent fixture of the environment. A trade war would disrupt all these investments, stranding a lot of capital.”
And since lots of capital would be stranded, lots of employment patterns worldwide would be disrupted, too – including in the numerous American manufacturing industries that have been thoroughly globalized and whose ability to assemble, further process, or produce goods in their U.S. facilities therefore depends on the smooth operations of these corporate networks.
Further, tariffs on imports from China allegedly would be especially damaging, since Chinese factories play such key roles in so many manufacturing supply chains, and since China’s prominence in globalized manufacturing in large part stems from so many special manufacturing strengths that the Chinese have developed – often by hook or by crook – in recent decades. If you need a compelling example, check out this early 2012 article on why Apple, among many others, has concentrated its industrial operations in the PRC.
At the same time, since Mr. Trump won the White House, not a few companies have either started relocated some production in the United States in response to actual or threatened tariffs, or made public remarks indicating that supplying the U.S. market from abroad would make no sense if trade barriers impeded their access. Other corporate leaders were saying even before Mr. Trump’s election that mounting protectionism and populism worldwide were bound to result in more localized manufacturing.
So it’s become clear in recent years that however much they’ll complain about moving supply chains, business leaders scarcely view the challenge as impossible. Still skeptical? Recall how easy it’s been for them to send even the largest supply chains from inside the United States to outside American borders, or capitalize on the existence of overseas networks. And recall how quickly many of these transfers happened.
Just how fast they took place, and can still take place, is where Foroohar’s column comes in. In yesterday’s column, she echoed my point about supply chain movements that are either already underway or being contemplated:
“Over the long term, China and the US are headed towards regional supply chains for high-growth technologies of the future.” She continued – consistent with the conventional wisdom, “But in the short term, the interdependencies will be difficult to untangle.”
Then, however, came the kicker – which received no special emphasis from the author at all:
“Several executives who supply Fortune 500 companies have told me it would take months if not years for the biggest US companies to break completely free of Chinese components.”
To repeat: Months – and at the outside years – for many companies to marginalize China’s role in particular in global supply chains. And then remember the reward: Greatly diminishing China’s still-burgeoning influence over the American economy and over the broader global economy, and in the process blunting the growing threat it poses to U.S. security interests both in the Asia-Pacific region and around the world.
That sounds like an appealing – indeed, no-brainer trade-off – to me. For an American leader hoping to disrupt U.S. trade and globalization policy for long-term gain, and facing numerous raucous short-term complaints, it should be an especially effective pitch to make, and an urgent policy target to prioritize explicitly and pursue systematically. Anyone seen any politicians like that lately?