RealityChek readers and anyone who’s familiar with my work over many years know that I’ve often lambasted U.S. multinational companies for powerfully aiding and abetting China’s rise to the status of economic great power status – and of surging threat to U.S. national security and prosperity. In fact, the dangers posed by China’s activities and goals have become so obvious that even the American political and policy establishments that on the whole actively supported the policies – and that permitted money from this corporate Offshoring Lobby to drive their decisions – are paying attention.
If you still doubt how these big U.S. corporations have sold China much of the rope with which it’s determined to hang their own companies and all of America (paraphrasing Lenin’s vivid supposed description of and prediction about the perilously shortsighted greed of capitalists), you should check out the latest report of the U.S-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC). As made clear by this study from an organization set up by Congress to monitor the China threat, not only have the multinationals’ investments in China figured “prominently in China’s national development ambitions.” They also “may indirectly erode the United States’ domestic industrial competitiveness and technological leadership relative to China.”
Worst of all, “as U.S. MNE (“multinational enterprise) activity in China increasingly focuses on the production of high-end technologies, the risk that U.S. firms are unwittingly enabling China to achieve its industrial policy and military development objectives rises.”
And a special bonus – these companies’ offshoring has greatly increased America’s dependence on China for supplies of crucial healthcare goods.
Here’s just a sampling of the evidence presented (and taken directly by the Commission from U.S. government reports):
> U.S. multinationals “employ more people in China than in any other country outside of the United States, primarily in the assembly of computers and electronic products.” Moreover, this employment skyrocketed by 574.6 percent from 2000 to 2017.
> “China is the fourth-largest destination for U.S. MNE research and development (R&D) expenditure and increasingly competes with advanced economies in serving as a key research hub for U.S. MNEs. The growth of U.S. MNE R&D expenditure in China is also comparatively accelerated, averaging 13.6 percent yearon-year since 2003 compared with 7.1 percent for all U.S. MNE foreign affiliates in the same period. This expenditure is highest in manufacturing, particularly in the production of computers and electronic products.”
> “U.S. MNE capital expenditure in China has focused on the creation of production sites for technology products. This development is aided by the Chinese government’s extensive policy support to develop China.”
> The multinationals’ capital spending on semiconductor manufacturing assets “has jumped 166.7 percent from $1.2 billion in 2010 (the earliest year for which complete [U.S government] data is available) to $3.2 billion in 2017, accounting for 90 percent of all U.S. MNE expenditure on computers and electronic products manufacturing assets in China.”
> “China has grown from the 20th-highest source of U.S. MNE affiliate value added in 2000 ($5.5 billion) to the fifth highest in 2017 ($71.5 billion), driven primarily by the manufacture of computers and electronic products as well as chemicals. The surge is especially notable in semiconductors and other electronic components.”
> “[P]harmaceutical manufacturing serves as the largest chemical sector in terms of value-added [a measure of manufacturing output that seeks to eliminate double-counting of output by stripping out the contribution of intermediate goods used in final products]…” And chemicals – the manufacturing category that include pharmaceuticals – has become the second largest U.S-owned industry in China measured by the value of its assets (after computers and electronic products).
Incidentally, the report’s tendency to use 2000 as a baseline year for examining trends is no accident. That’s the year before China was admitted into the World Trade Organization (WTO) – and the numbers strongly reenforce the argument that the multinationals so avidly sought this objective in order to make sure that the value of their huge planned investments in China wouldn’t be kneecapped by any unilateral U.S. tariffs on imports from China (including those from their factories). For the WTO’s combination of consensus decision-making plus the protectionist natures of most of its members’ economies created a towering obstacle to Washington acting on its own to safeguard legitimate American domestic economic interests from Chinese and other foreign predatory trade and broader economic activity.
At the same time, despite the WTO’s key role in preserving the value of the multinationals’ export-focused China investments, the USCC study underestimates how notably such investment remains geared toward exporting, including to the United States. This issue matters greatly because chances are high that this kind of investment (in China or anywhere else abroad) has replaced the multinationals’ factories and workers in the United States. By contrast, multinational investment in China (or anywhere else abroad) that’s supplying the China market almost never harms the U.S. domestic economy and in fact can help it, certainly in early stages, by providing foreign customers that add to the domestic customers of U.S.-based manufacturers.
There’s no doubt that the phenomenal growth of China’s own consumer class in recent decades has, as the China Commission report observes, generated more and more American business decisions to supply those customers from China. In other words, the days when critical masses of Chinese couldn’t possibly afford to buy the goods they made in U.S.- and other foreign-owned factories are long gone.
But the data presented by the USCC does nothing to support this claim, and the key to understanding why is the central role played by computer, electronics, and other information technology-related manufacturing in the U.S. corporate presence in China. For when the Commission (and others) report that large shares of the output of these factories are now sold to Chinese customers, they overlook the fact that many of these other customers are their fellow entities comprising links of China-centric corporate supply chains. These sales, however, don’t mean that the final customers for these products are located in China.
In other words, when a facility in China that, for example, performs final assembly activities on semiconductors sells those chips to another factory in China that sticks them into computers or cell phones or HDTV sets, the sale is regarded as one made to a Chinese customer. But that customer in turn surely sells much of its own production overseas. As the USCC documents, China’s consumer market for these goods has grown tremendously, too. But China’s continually surging share of total global production of these electronics products (also documented in the Commission report) indicates that lots of this output continues to be sold overseas.
Also overlooked by the USCC – two other disturbing apects of the multinationals’ activities in China.
First, it fails to mention that all the computer and electronics-related investment in China – which presumably includes a great deal of software-related investment – has contributed to China’s economic and military ambitions not only by transferring knowhow to Chinese partners, but by teaching huge numbers of Chinese science and technology workers how to generate their technology advances. The companies’ own (often glowing) descriptions of these training activities – which have often taken the form of dedicated training programs and academies – were revealed in this 2013 article of mine.
Second, the Commission’s report doesn’t seem to include U.S. multinationals’ growing investments not simply in high tech facilities in China that they partly or wholly own, but in Chinese-owned entities. As I’ve reported here on RealityChek, these capital flows are helping China develop and produce high tech goods with numerous critical defense-related applications, and the scale has grown so large that some elements of the U.S. national security community had been taking notice as early as 2015. And President Trump seems to be just as oblivious to these investments as globalist former President Barack Obama was.
These criticisms aside, though, the USCC has performed a major public service with this survey of the multinationals’ China activities. It should be must reading in particular for anyone who still believes that these companies – whose China operations have so greatly enriched and therefore strengthened the People’s Republic at America’s expense – deserve much influence over the U.S. China policy debate going forward.