Huawei Quarantine Accelerates Tech ‘Balkanization’ Trend

“The three core issues of concern to China are the cancellation of all tariffs, that trade purchases be in line with reality, and that the text of the agreement be revised so as to be more balanced. These issues must be resolved. This trade friction has made us more aware that we have shortcomings in terms of economic structure, quality of development, and core technologies. [We must] enhance the sense of urgency in accelerating indigenous innovation and resolve the bottleneck imposed by insufficient mastery of core technologies. CCP Propaganda Department Commentary on the US confrontation in People’s Daily newspaper last Friday

We have regularly covered the rise of China’s tech sector over the past decade and the complacency in Silicon Valley which has only recently been shattered by Huawei’s threatened dominance of the global 5G rollout. The ‘balkanization’ trend already evident in software ecosystems from messaging to payments will now extend to hardware throughout the supply chain – there will be a China centric physical internet architecture over the next decade centred on Huawei as much as a software one around companies like Alibaba, Tencent and Bytedance with the big ‘neutral’ EM markets like India a key battleground.

In the near term, the notion that China can be quarantined as a technology supplier looks naïve – alternative vendors like Nokia and Ericsson make 5G hardware with Chinese partners in mainland factories for sale globally, leaving their equipment vulnerable to malicious tampering – will they have to relocate production to ‘safe’ locations to sell into the US? If so, the global rollout will be significantly delayed…

Huawei has been rapidly vertically integrating with its own chip making subsidiary, HiSilicon, producing highly advanced 5G designs, albeit fabricated (as for Apple and Google) by TSMC. As a Chinese tech VC contact told me in Shanghai last October, cut China off from TSMC and it would be casus belli like the Japanese oil embargo in 1940. If the US is serious about confronting China’s competitive threat on a sustained basis, it needs to boost government R&D spend on basic science (instead it’s been cut), deepen the capacity of domestic tech supply chains via education investment and targeted tax credits or cutting off broader Chinese access to advanced GPU chips and postgraduate student access to STEM courses at colleges such as MIT and Stanford. Those moves would be expensive and disruptive for the US economy and are still possible future steps if relations become even more antagonistic.

China offers uniquely low (marginal) consumer electronics assembly costs plus high-volume flexibility. You can never replicate the mainland factory dormitory model in the US or even Korea and Taiwan. The increasingly well educated rural migrants filling Foxconn factories are the ultimate ‘on demand’ workforce – manufacturing elsewhere would mean higher assembly costs/decreased flexibility thanks to the constraints of current generation assembly line robotics.

Even with high levels of automation, a fully US assembled iPhone would likely cost about 40% more at the factory gate (with Apple gross margins at ~37%, the current tariffs imply a price rise of about 15% to offset the impact, unless the RMB plunged toward 7.5 versus the USD). For instance, Quanta Computer, the largest laptop maker in the world with clients from Apple to Dell, warned last week that the logistical costs of shifting consumer electronics production out of China could prove as expensive as the tariffs themselves. 

Automation is part of the answer to offshoring from China but changes the business model – assembly by Chinese migrant workers is a marginal cost for a factory owner; robots are a fixed cost, although the assembly of an additional unit has zero marginal costs (excluding overheads like maintenance etc.). New AI software will help but it’s still expensive and time consuming to program factory robots to perform multiple tasks.

The implication of this shift from marginal to fixed costs is that there is a heavy incentive to stick with a specific design: any change requires significant capital investment to update the robotic assembly line – the flexibility of the entire consumer electronics sector will deteriorate, with higher inventories and fixed overheads once it loses China’s unique attributes as a global production base – given wafer thin margins, consumer prices will trend higher even if a face saving deal could avoid further tariffs.

Relocating the supply chain for smartphones or laptops will be hugely disruptive, wherever the destination and it certainly won’t be the US – the much-hyped Foxconn factory to make TV screens in Wisconsin has become a fiasco, despite $4bn in tax breaks and subsidies. The lack of a skilled manufacturing workforce will be a key constraint on US re-shoring, as much as logistics considerations – flying components in from Taiwan/S. Korea to assemble phones in the US makes little sense.

The effort to lobotomise Huawei looks ill thought out and will have generated intense lobbying by the most adversely impacted US suppliers – there will likely be some nuance in the implementation. However, the endgame is now clear and US tech companies will have to mitigate ongoing compliance risks by reducing exposure to Chinese SOEs. We’ve seen a few companies like Go-Pro begin relocation (to Mexico in this case), but this will now accelerate while China will race to become a ‘full stack’ technology power by mastering semiconductor fabrication and an indigenous mobile operating system.

In the case of both Iran and Huawei, the US has unilaterally exercised its global power over international bank payments systems and key technologies like the Android OS to exercise brute force geopolitical leverage – the lesson drawn by many in Europe and Asia is that alternative architectures are now needed. Ultimately, China which remains the only country apart from the US to understand the critical value of ‘platform’ software and is catching up rapidly in AI and quantum computing research, will become an even more formidable competitor to the US tech giants. The Xi 2025 plan, whose ambitions triggered panic in Washington from the Pentagon to Congress, will now be implemented sooner, by any and all means possible.