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The Big Squeeze: Japanese Supply Chains and Great Power Competition
Author: Mireya Solis
Region: Asia
Theme: Economics
Location: China, Japan
Published July 30, 2021
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Japan led, and was transformed, by the global supply chain revolution. Facing growing protectionism in industrialized markets and reeling from sharp yen appreciation in the aftermath of the 1985 Plaza Accord, Japanese firms responded with a drastic increase in their overseas investment activities. In so doing, many of these companies spearheaded the movement towards the fragmentation of production across national boundaries that sought efficiency gains by pooling the competitive advantages of different locations. Japan’s experience with the first supply chain revolution was transformative. It altered its export-led model with important implications for its foreign policy. Japanese investments in the United States helped abate trade frictions; integrated production was at the heart of the project to rebuild relations with China, and Japan’s lead as foreign investor in Southeast Asia has been a pillar of its blueprint for regional integration.

The strains in the rules-based international trade order, however, have raised questions about the ability of global supply chains to continue to operate effectively. The U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry has manifested in a damaging trade war, and moves to restrict tech flows are creating decoupling pressures. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these trends with lockdowns that disrupt supply chains while export protectionism and calls to renationalize production are on the rise. The intensified risk environment could lead to a second supply chain revolution with a greater emphasis on redundancy and diversification and bifurcation of productive chains. How will Japan respond to the challenges to international production, a central engine of its economic prosperity, and with what consequences for its relations with major powers?

To provide greater clarity on this overarching question, this paper is organized as follows. Section 1 describes the central role of Japanese firms in the emergence and deepening of regional production networks. Although Japan’s overall share of intra-regional trade has decreased in the 21st century—in tandem with China’s rise as regional hub- Japanese firms have retained their central role in GVCs (Global Value Chains) through their advanced manufacturing capabilities. Section 2 offers a glimpse of past and recent supply chain shocks—China’s embargo of rare earth metals, the Great East Japan Earthquake in Tohoku, and the Japan-Korea export control dispute—to illustrate both sources of vulnerability and resilience of Japanese GVCs. Section 3 assesses the systemic shift brought about by revived great power competition, and identifies some early adjustment responses from Japanese firms to a new normal of heightened geopolitical tension.

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