Which Asian Country Will Replace China as the ‘World’s Factory’?

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Which Asian Country Will Replace China as the ‘World’s Factory’?

Analyzing the “Mighty Five,” countries set to replace China as the workshops of the world.

Which Asian Country Will Replace China as the ‘World’s Factory’?

An employee works inside an undergarment factory in Kolkata, India (February 1, 2017).

Credit: REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Low-cost manufacturing played a huge role in making China the second largest economy in the world by 2010, compared to the ninth largest in 1980. Now China is rapidly moving into medium to high-tech manufacturing as its labor costs have risen.

“A decade ago, China wasn’t even on the map. Now they have the fastest computer in the world, even beating U.S. national labs,” says Michelle Drew Rodriguez, co-author of Deloitte’s 2016 Global Manufacturing Competitiveness Index.

China’s transition is opening space for other countries to move into low-cost manufacturing, where China until recently dominated. Deloitte predicts that the economies of Malaysia, India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam, the “Mighty Five” or MITI-V, will inherit China’s crown for such products. The consensus among industry and regional experts interviewed for this article is that India in particular will be the next top hub for low-cost manufacturing.

Manufacturing is central to a country’s economic development. According to a McKinsey report on the future of manufacturing, it “contributes disproportionately to exports, innovation, and productivity growth.”

China, the United States, and Germany are currently among the most 15 globally competitive manufacturing countries in the world. But in the next five years, according to a survey of industry CEOs carried out by Deloitte, the MITI-V of Malaysia, India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam are set to enter the top 15 most competitive manufacturing countries. They are the “new China,” the top economies for low-cost manufacturing (i.e., labor intensive commodity type products like apparel, toys, textiles and basic consumer electronics).

China Gets a Pay Raise

Manufacturing goods in China is now only 4 percent cheaper than in the United States, in large part because yearly average manufacturing wages in China have increased by 80 percent since 2010. It is in response to this that China, backed by billions of dollars in investment from its government, has vigorously moved into higher value manufacturing.

Dr. Jing Bing Zhang, research director of IDC Worldwide Robotics, agrees with Drew Rodriguez on China’s prowess in advanced manufacturing. “China is very competitive in this area. They are able to produce very complex products. They are able to skill up handsomely and maintain good quality. Smartphones, semi-conductors, robots, advanced manufacturing equipment… they’re even moving into airplanes,” says Zhang. As Chinese manufacturing becomes more high value, and workers’ wages are rising, low-cost manufacturing is moving out.

“This has been happening for a number of years – it’s nothing new. Especially shoe-making [and] apparel are already moving out to Vietnam, Indonesia, and even Bangladesh. China is really focusing on upgrading industry into medium to high tech,” Zhang says.

The “MITI-V” – Which Is the Mightiest? 

Manufacturing experts see a varieity of areas as important for low-cost manufacturing competitiveness: young populations, low labor costs, a supportive policy environment, good quality infrastructure, availability of engineers, a minimum level of education for all workers, economic growth and a large internal consumer market.

The different economies all have their distinct advantages and disadvantages but China’s equally giant neighbor to the west stands out from the crowd. “My opinion is that India has the potential to be the next hub for low-cost manufacturing,” says Zhang. He sees India as being the next center for electronics assembly. He points to Chinese consumer appliances giant Huawei, which in September announced that it would manufacture three million smartphones a year in India, and Foxconn, the Apple supplier, which is opening a $10 billion iPhone manufacturing plant in India.

In particular, India’s strengths are its mixture of high- and low-skilled labor and the potential to sell to its huge market of 1.2 billion consumers. Although much of the population is poor, their incomes are rising. “India has a large base of university graduates. This is very important. You still require manufacturing engineers; you also need design engineers. You need supervisors. And India has a large base of well-educated graduates. They compare very nicely to other countries in the MITI-V,” says Zhang.

India’s policy environment is also becoming much more supportive of manufacturing. The Indian government launched the “Make in India” campaign in 2014, which aims to increase the level of manufacturing in the country. The government has achieved some success – India overtook China in 2015 as the country receiving the most foreign direct investment globally and companies have reported improving administrative efficiency at the federal level.

Despite all these positives, India has many challenges. In order to have a flourishing manufacturing base, workers need to be able to at least read and write to operate machinery. India scores low on general skills attainment, ranking 105th in the world according to the UN’s Human Capital Index 2016, lower than any other MITI-V nation. India’s infrastructure is woeful, in particular transport and energy supply, where it ranks lower than most other emerging economies. Government inefficiency is also a major stumbling block – delays in land acquisition and environmental clearances have stalled more than 270 projects across the country.

Nevertheless, India’s huge market, low costs, and positive noises from the government make it unavoidable for any manufacturer looking to produce bulk commodity products. According to Drew Rodriguez, there are major signals, such as “graduation rates, government and regulatory nods,” that may cement India’s position as the next low-cost manufacturing hub.

A senior engineer at BSH Hausgeräte GmbH, the largest home appliances manufacturer in Europe and a major investor across Asia, who works closely with low-cost Chinese manufacturers, also agrees: “India is the future. Infrastructure is not so good but they have so many people,” he says. However, he has also seen Chinese companies moving into Vietnam due to its very stable political environment.  Indeed, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam all have their own benefits and some similarities with India.

“The fundamental risks of the global south are not there,” says Dr. Carlo Bonura, region head of Southeast Asia at political risk consultancy Oxford Analytica, referring to the Southeast Asian nations of the MITI-V. There are few risks of expropriation of assets or labor risks, for example. According to Bonura, “This is a region where all the major regimes, regardless if they’re democracies or autocratic, they recognize [the] importance of sequestering political instability from economic stability.” This contrasts with India, which before current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was well known among international investors for being unwelcoming to foreign businesses.

Both Bonura and Zhang see Thailand and Malaysia as more focused on high- and medium-tech manufacturing rather than being the next centers of low-cost manufacturing. Thailand has strong automotive, electronics, food, and chemicals industries, while Malaysia has strong chemicals, machinery, and rubber processing industries. This is borne out in the relative prosperity of the MITI-V countries as Malaysia and Thailand are by far the richest of the group.

That leaves Indonesia and Vietnam. “I hear from a lot of companies that they are moving to Vietnam…wages are half that of China,” says the senior engineer at BSH Hausgeräte GmbH, who also thinks that Vietnam’s very stable political environment is advantageous. Vietnam also has better infrastructure than Indonesia and the advantage of being close to China.

“The problem for Indonesia is the state’s capacity to implement industrial strategy; the state is highly decentralized and there are huge infrastructure issues. You don’t have these challenges in Vietnam; Vietnam is also a smaller country,” says Bonura. Yet Vietnam’s population of 95 million is smaller than Indonesia’s population of over 255 million and therefore represents a smaller potential consumer market — and neither country compares to India’s huge population.

The Rise of the Robots

It seems clear therefore that India is the manufacturing industry’s pick as the mightiest of the MITI-V for low-cost manufacturing. Indeed, Deloite’s report already has India as the 11th most competitive manufacturing country globally, thereby piercing the top 15 earlier than any of the other MITI-V countries.

Yet for all the talk of the MITI-V countries taking over China as workshops of the world, a nagging fear will stalk policymakers in India and other MITI-V countries. With robots becoming ever more sophisticated, analysts are predicting manufacturing will employ far less people in the future. Martin Ford’s bestselling 2016 book The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment paints a bleak picture of whole swathes of professional sector jobs, let alone low-cost manufacturing, being automated. Commentators and policymakers in India in particular seem downbeat on India conjuring up a jobs boom like China experienced during its rapid growth.

Should they be so worried? Zhang and Drew Rodriguez do not think so. “The MITI-V are still going to be very competitive for the next decade plus,” says Drew Rodriguez. Zhang is not pessimistic either: “I am the opposite. There are different schools of thought…  From my research, I don’t see it. Maybe we will be less dependent on human labor. But there is no way this will eliminate the need for people in the next 15-20 years. We are entering high speed growth for robotics but in 2014 global density for robotics was still very low at 66 per 10,000 employees, 36 in China, 57 in Thailand, and close to none in India.”

Other roadblocks lie in wait for the MITI-V, such as the threat of protectionism, which is all the more real after U.S. President Donald Trump’s call for tariffs on Chinese imports and threats to companies moving jobs away from the United States. But this does not seem to be dampening the prospects of the MITI-V just yet. “Every month, every year, the world is a more connected place,” says Drew Rodriguez.

All of the MITI-V have their own distinct advantages but India’s huge internal market and low labor costs give it the edge. However, this is not to say that other MITI-V countries will not also become “new China” hubs for low-cost manufacturing. This will be the case regardless of the threat from robots or protectionism. “I haven’t seen anything in the recent shift that would lead me to change my impression of the competitiveness of the MITI-V,” adds Drew Rodriguez.

Matthias Lomas is a consultant focused on Asia and the Middle East.