Pandemic speeds up iPhone makers' plans to exit China

Customers and workers wearing facemasks in an Apple store in Shanghai, China, on March 16, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

Wistron Corp, one of Apple's manufacturing partners, said last week that half its capacity could reside outside China within a year.

The declaration underscores how the Asian assemblers that keep the world supplied with iPhones and other gadgets are shifting to a higher gear after the coronavirus showed the folly of staking everything on one country.

The move to shift production out of China has been under way since the trade war between Washington and Beijing reached its zenith last year.

Now, the Covid-19 pandemic is expediting that. Decisions by companies such as Wistron and other Apple partners including Hon Hai Precision, Inventec and Pegatron could reshape tech supply chains.

Taipei-listed Wistron is targeting India - where it is already making some iPhones - along with Vietnam and Mexico, setting aside US$1 billion (S$1.35 billion) to fund the expansion this year and next. "We understand from a lot of messages from our customers that they believe this is something we have to do," chairman Simon Lin said on an earnings call. "They're happy and appreciate that we can continue to make such a move and they will continue to work with us."

Pegatron, which assembles iPhones, is also diversifying its manufacturing sites, including by adding capacity back home in Taiwan. Chief executive officer Liao Syh-jang said last Thursday that it hopes to kick-start manufacturing operations in Vietnam next year, after setting up a new plant in Indonesia last year, and it is further looking at India as a location for new facilities.

The firm said last Friday that it had agreed to purchase land and a plant in northern Taiwan.

Inventec, Apple's main assembly partner for AirPods, said last Tuesday that it is preparing to establish a unit in Vietnam.

More than any other assembler, Hon Hai encapsulated how the coronavirus brought China, the world's No. 2 economy, to a standstill. Better known as Foxconn, it signals a potential shift in a global production paradigm that has governed the electronics industry for well over three decades.

The company also has facilities in India, where it began churning out iPhones last year, and Vietnam. "Trade, the virus, all these things will make the world very different in the next decade," Mr Alex Yang, the firm's investor relations chief, said in a recent call.

But it is unlikely that China will fully give up its place as the world's electronics workshop any time soon. This is because it is difficult to replicate the intricate network of suppliers, competent workers, efficient distribution systems and large home market that the country offers. Large-scale relocation of manufacturing capabilities would also take time.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook said late last month that the company was not looking to make any quick moves out of China in the light of virus-related supply-chain interruptions. "We're talking about adjusting some knobs, not some sort of wholesale, fundamental change," he said.

Still, the outward-bound trend is accelerating, especially among smaller-scale manufacturers. That extends to gadget-makers serving customers other than Apple.

Meiloon Industrial, which makes speakers and counts Harman International and Xiaomi among its clients, is seeking alternatives to China-based production and speeding up a move of capacity to places like Taiwan and Indonesia, said spokesman Eva Kuo.

The singularly trying experience of dealing with the outbreak in China will reverberate well after Covid-19 subsides, raising questions about the globalised business model of modern corporations.

"It's a wake-up call," Mr Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, said last month. "China was a given, it was the perfect infrastructure for us to source and buy from there, and to sell. Now, of course, we have to reconsider scenarios, how to deal with China in the future."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2020, with the headline Pandemic speeds up iPhone makers' plans to exit China. Subscribe