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The Pandemic’s Impact on Supply Chains from China and their Evolution: The View from South Korea
Author: Jin Kyo Suh
Region: Asia
Theme: Economics
Location: Korea, South, China
Published July 30, 2021
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Today’s global economy is highly interconnected and interdependent. Supply chains across the world are finely tuned to deliver parts just when they are needed, so that companies and industries do not need to waste money on maintaining big warehouses. The economic system runs with remarkable efficiency, and companies are able to keep inventory to a minimum. However, firms have started rethinking their supply chains in response to changing labor costs, advances in automation, rising protectionism, and external shocks, such as natural disasters. In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the structural fragility of current global supply chains and has forced many global enterprises to fundamentally reconsider their approach to global manufacturing and sourcing. The crisis has also highlighted geopolitical tensions, trade restrictions, and nationalist politics aimed at promoting a country’s domestic industries, which are likely to continue reshaping the global business landscape. As a consequence, most global enterprises are going to be under greater political and competitive pressure to increase their domestic production, grow employment in their home countries, and rethink their use of lean manufacturing strategies that involve minimizing the amount of inventory held in their global supply chains.

Previously, supply chains were designed to keep costs low and inventories lean. However, supply chains are now being reworked to reduce the risks of future disruption even if doing so means incurring additional costs. Because China is decidedly the world’s largest goods exporter and is also currently mired in a trade conflict with the United States, supply chains going through China may be among the most vulnerable to future disruptions. Hyundai, South Korea’s largest automaker, temporarily stopped production lines at its factories in South Korea because of shortages of Chinese parts. The Hyundai shutdown—encompassing the first factory lines to be idled outside China—could foreshadow considerably more serious disruptions in the complex networks that supply automakers with essential components and materials (Automakers are especially susceptible to interruptions in the flow of goods because the industry is global, and cars are complex products with a myriad of precision parts).

Recognizing the risk that dependency on China poses to national industries, some governments have offered manufacturers incentives to exit China and ease the pain of diversification. For example, Japan put $2.2 billion of its COVID-19 economic stimulus package into supporting its manufacturers moving toward shifting production outside of China. There was also mounting public pressure in some countries, such as the United States, to move essential production of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment out of China and closer to home.

It is, however, not that simple to reduce global supply chain reliance on China: the nation still retains not only considerable comparative advantages in many areas (e.g. electronics, machinery, and equipment manufacturing), but also enormous purchasing power as the world’s second largest market. Even those companies that have diversified production are finding it hard to break free of China’s pervasive influence. Anticipating a rise in tariffs due to the U.S.-China trade conflict, videogame producer Nintendo shifted the manufacturing of its blockbuster gaming console called Switch to Vietnam in 2019. There was, however, a shortage of Switch consoles in stores in early 2020 due to a lack of essential components flowing to the company’s Vietnamese factories, as COVID-19 paused production of component parts by Chinese suppliers. In addition, most businesses have developed complex interdependencies, resulting in a deep tiering of supply chains. Many manufacturers depend on first-tier suppliers which, in turn, rely on a second-tier, and so on. Therefore, relocating factories or replacing all Chinese suppliers would be infeasible in the short-term.

This chapter reviews the impact of supply chain disruption caused by COVID-19 on the South Korean economy and examines the future of regional supply chains centered on China. The rest of the paper is structured as follows. How supply chain disruption caused by COVID-19 will affect the South Korean economy, including trade, is discussed in Section 2. According to the latest national GDP report by the Bank of Korea (BOK), South Korea is going to see a mere 1 percent GDP contraction for 2020, the second-best performance among major economies behind only China. Reasons for why the South Korean economy
was not seriously affected by the pandemic are also discussed in Section 2. Section 3 highlights the difficulty of reducing global supply chain reliance on China. China is likely to remain a key player, and the world must look at the reality that global supply chains are highly interconnected with China and that disconnecting from China’s supply chain is not an easy economic task for many multinational companies. The final section offers a few concluding remarks on deepening regionalism specifically in Asia, including policy implications for South Korea.

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