As Americans continue debating the merits of remaining dependent on supplies of key products from China (including state-of-the-art 5G telecommunications technology), a great example of why self-sufficiency can be crucial – along with laying adequate groundwork – has just come from an economy much smaller than the United States’ and capable of standing on its own in many fewer areas: South Korea.
In fairness, never during its remarkable rise from deep impoverishment and war-time devastation has South Korea bought the basic principle underlying the generally open trade (and investment) policies that have shaped the global economy throughout the post-World War II era. That is, its leaders have never been willing to prioritize worldwide efficiency by permitting market forces to determine which of their industries would excel.
Indeed, South Korea has been one of the world’s most hermetically sealed economies and hasn’t even been able to cite legitimate national security concerns for its approach. After all, it’s been staunchly defended by the United States for decades – even enjoying the presence of American military tripwire units aimed at forcing, to the greatest extent possible, Washington to risk nuclear attack on the American homeland in Seoul’s defense.
Recently, however, South Korea encountered an economic threat that it – understandably – concluded posed unacceptable risks to the high tech industries that have created so much of its prosperity. Because of a dispute centering on from compensation for atrocities committed by Japan during its long-time colonial rule over South Korea, Japan in July cut South Korean tech companies off from supplies of three chemicals needed to make numerous key products, including semiconductors and advanced displays (computer and TV screens). Japan also removed South Korea from its list of countries enjoying preferential trade status.
And as the Financial Times reported last week, in response, Seoul has decided not simply to accept that Japan’s curbs would surely reduce the competitiveness of its tech sector, and to leave to the subsequent workings of market forces to determine what types of activity would dominate its economy – and determine its fate. Instead, it’s decided to build up its own capabilities in electronic inputs in order to reduce its vulnerabilities to even broader restrictions that Japan might impose as long as this bilateral trade war lasts – and surely in order to cut its exposure to similar potential threats from elsewhere.
According to the Financial Times, “Seoul plans to invest more than Won 5tn between 2020 and 2022 in research and development, in an attempt to localise about 100 different components and materials in the next five years. South Korea has also said it will provide tax breaks, cut red tape and encourage co-operation between big companies and their small suppliers to accelerate the localisation process.”
Nor is South Korea’s government is unlikely to pay much heed to any whining about short-term cost pain from consumers or companies elsewhere in these high tech supply chains. Its officials “stress the importance of diversification. ‘Cost savings is no longer the best thing for our companies. Risk hedging has become much more important.’”
And Seoul seems completely unimpressed with the warnings from conventional economists, like the one who stated “No country can be fully self-sufficient. Focusing on local substitutes only can bring more negative side effects. They may end up having to buy expensive local parts and materials although they can be easily sourced abroad at cheaper prices.”
For the South Korean government understands that Japan’s cutoffs mean that vital parts and materials may not always, or often enough “be easily sourced abroad at cheaper prices” – or at any prices.
Moreover, although it’s no doubt true, as the article contends, that South Korea is behind Japan technologically, Seoul’s drive for greater self-sufficiency is no pipe dream. For the country has built impressive enough technological wherewithal to endow these policies with a solid foundation. Indeed, there’s considerable evidence that decades of “Korea First” industrialization policies have been keys to the South’s long record of rapid gains in global technological competitiveness.
Not that South Korea has an easy row to hoe, as this piece indicates. But here’s where we come to the lessons for the United States: Despite longstanding and offshoring-friendly trade and globalization policies, it remains the global technology leader and therefore boasts advantages that dwarf South Korea’s – or any other country’s. Even better, it’s developed a tried and true formula for fostering world-class innovation, in high tech industries ranging from pharmaceuticals (think “National Institutes of Health”) to aerospace and software and information technology (think “Pentagon”).
In other words, the United States has more than enough “wallet” to overcome the technology threat posed by China, or any other possible rivals – though the Trump administration’s industrial policy initiatives could stand considerable improvement. But the President’s China trade policies show that, for the first time in decades, the United States has a leader with the will.