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China plus one in practice

China plus one in practice.

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The Sino-US trade war has reignited discussions about China’s future as the world’s factory. After years of cost rises, should you replace China as your primary sourcing market? Two stances usually dominate the debate. One camp tends to inflate the urgency of moving out of China due to its rising costs, while the opposing side doubts that it’s profitable, or even feasible, to find a substitute for the country’s massive and mature supply chains.

In this China Focus, we try to add nuance and depth to this conversation. We take a closer look at the advantages and bottlenecks that alternative sourcing markets in Asia offer for specific industries, and we analyse China’s competitiveness as a sourcing market in a world where “buying well” is becoming just as important as “buying cheap”.

It’s impossible to reach a simple verdict about China’s future dominance as a sourcing destination. A company’s product focus, end markets, business goals, and resources must be factored in. But, among the brand owners, traders, and buying offices whom we work with, those who are doing well have three things in common:

  1. They actively explore a “China plus one” strategy, even if they have decided not to pursue it in the short to mid-term.
  2. They know that sourcing from China does not mean “business as usual”, so they’re making their supply chains more flexible.
  3. They prioritise sustainability and see it as a value driver rather than just a cost burden.

The cost advantage that turned China into the world’s factory has declined over the last decade. Labour costs, which were one-tenth of those in the US in 2005, are now about one-third. This, combined with rising indirect costs, environmental regulations and, more recently, the Sino-US trade war, has prompted global companies and their suppliers to look for cheaper alternatives. The shift has helped lower-wage Asian countries to grow their manufacturing capacity and exports, especially in labour-intensive sectors such as textile, footwear and electronics (see below). Between 2010-17, for instance, China’s share of US apparel imports fell steadily from 40% to 33%, while Vietnam’s share more than doubled.

Top exports by country (2017)

Monthly minimum wages by country

Notes: – April 18th, 2019 FX Rates
China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam: min. wages vary by region
Thailand: monthly min. wage calculated based on statutory daily min. wage
Cambodia: statutory min. wage applies for textile and footwear workers only
Sources: Observatory of Economic Complexity (UN COMTRADE), Fiducia analysis

But rather than a large-scale, cross-industry migration of global supply chains out of China, what we’re seeing are small-scale, industry-specific shifts. Most companies are looking to complement, rather than replace, their China sourcing. Beyond cheaper labour, decision-makers must consider the broader competitive advantages of each location, how they match their industry focus and business goals, and whether there are bottlenecks that could offset those opportunities. Below, we zoom in on three countries: Cambodia, a popular alternative for apparel and footwear, Thailand, a strong player in the automotive sector, and Vietnam, which has the most diverse manufacturing base in South-East Asia (SEA).

Key Exports
  • Machinery including computers and chips: complex manufactured goods make up almost half of Thai exports
  • Vehicles and car parts: self-nicknamed the “Detroit of Asia”, Thailand is the largest automotive manufacturer in SEA
  • Apparel: textile products make up 70% of exports. Over 60% of garment factories are located around Pnom Penh
  • Footwear and leather accessories: footwear exports rose 25% in 2017, while apparel exports grew just 8%
  • Electronics: Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of smartphones
  • Apparel: Vietnam is the #2 source country for garment imports in the US, but the EU imports more from China, Bangladesh, Turkey, India, and Cambodia
  • Both BMW and Mercedes-Benz produce cars in Thailand and will start producing EV batteries for local demand and export
  • In 2018, Adidas Group sourced 1/4 of its apparel from Cambodia, replacing China as its top source country for garments
  • Since 2009, Samsung has shifted most of its production to Vietnam, taking key suppliers with it. The company accounts for 1/4 of Vietnam’s exports
  • Consistent economic policy: e.g., “Thailand 4.0”, a well-defined industrial upgrading plan, and a US$45b project to boost infrastructure in the EEC
  • Good logistics networks: ranks highest among SEA nations (except Singapore) in the World Bank’s logistics index
  • Low labour costs: average labour costs are 1/4 of China’s, according to Oxford Economics
  • Special trade status: duty-free status applies to all Cambodian imports to the EU (except weapons) and certain imports to the US (e.g. handbags and wallets)
  • Proximity to China: land and sea connectivity to neighbouring China facilitates integration with your existing Chinese supply chain
  • Trade agreements: a free trade agreement with the EU is expected to become effective this year
  • Labour market: Thailand has relatively high labour costs, the fastest ageing population in SEA, and 45% of its workforce is unskilled
  • Political instability: uncertainty continues even after the country held its first elections since the 2014 military coup
  • Ease of doing business: it takes 99 days to start a business in Cambodia according to the World Bank, only slower than in Laos and Venezuela
  • Threat of trade sanctions: after the
  • country’s flawed 2018 elections, the EU is reviewing to revoke its duty-free status
  • Reliance on imported inputs: 70-80% of fabrics used to make clothing are imported, mainly from China, and the case is similar for electronic products
  • Fast-rising costs: the cost of land, labour, electricity, and building materials are rising quickly as capacity improvements are failing to keep pace with growth

Contact our teams for expert support and further information about China’s economy.

Russel Brown OBE, Vice Chairman, Partner,
Robin Tabbers, Partner,
Maxime Van ‘t Klooster, Partner,