The country has a better chance of climbing the technology ladder by exposing its companies to the rigours of world-class competitors.
By Anjani Trivedi
China’s industrial ambitions have the US on edge. But what has actually come of its plans for global technology domination? Beijing is considering delaying targets in its “Made in China 2025” programme, Bloomberg News reported last week. The roadmap, which seeks to advance domestic production of critical technology, has been a key bone of contention in president Donald Trump’s trade war. Other reports said China may replace the programme altogether and give foreign companies more access to its market.
On the same day, though, the State Council said it had decided to boost “mechanised farming” and upgrade agricultural machinery (while also noting that farmers would be subsidised whether buying foreign or Chinese brands). And the ministry of industry and information technology said it would roll out policies to upgrade manufacturing with “cutting-edge technologies”. Both announcements were in line with Made in China 2025 goals. The reports make one thing clear: China isn’t going to rein in its industrial objectives anytime soon. At the same time, it is a long way from achieving those targets.
By the numbers, China increasingly doesn’t need the world’s factories. The foreign content of its exports, based on the ratio of imported components, has been dropping for the last 20 years. Most basic inputs are now made in China. But that is also true for foreign companies. Consider ABB Ltd. The Swiss industrial giant sources locally almost 90% of the parts it uses to manufacture transformers, robots and electrical equipment in China, and sells most of its output there, according to Morgan Stanley.
Made in China 2025, published in summer 2015, laid out how and why China would need to move up the technology ladder and close the gap with developed countries in higher-end or intelligent manufacturing.
The plan identified 10 key sectors and set out targets to raise domestic content in core components and materials. The global community has balked at the proposal, seeing it as a type of stealth import substitution policy. Its financial scale has sent shudders, with hundreds of billions of dollars in funds backed by state banks and other pools of government capital.
But Beijing doesn’t have much to show for all this. China’s research and development expenditure, while growing, remains well below the likes of the US and Japan as a percentage of GDP. R&D intensity, a proxy for how effectively the country has spent its money, has barely budged in the past two years.
At a recent business forum, a senior official with the financial and economic affairs committee of the National People’s Congress said China was likely to miss its targets for R&D spending as a portion of GDP in the five-year plan ending 2020. The nation will effectively end up spending $100 billion less than it had budgeted.
Speak to CEOs of German machinery makers, and they will tell you China’s expertise may have reached the second or third level, but it is nowhere close to the highest tier. Chemical companies in southern China say every local entrepreneur wants to make the compounds but when it comes to the high-end they can’t quite cut it, producing formulations that are often unstable.
In 2017, high-tech manufacturing accounted for just under 13% of total industrial value-added. More than half of China’s technology standards for smart manufacturing don’t match internationally accepted ones. That might hinder foreign players, but it also impedes the nation’s own companies on the global stage.
A look at the state of the new energy vehicle, or NEV, industry suggests China is unlikely to race ahead. Domestic production is supposed to have an 80% share of the NEV market by 2025. Yet for all the millions of NEVs China now churns out, it has yet to produce a global or even a domestic champion. Instead, subsidies have led to swaths of low-quality electric cars. Several would-be “Tesla killers” have come and gone. Ultimately, China brought in Tesla itself to manufacture locally.
Despite the trade tensions and the apparent barriers, foreign investment in China has continued to pour in. In the first 11 months, it rose 1.1% to more than $120 billion and the number of newly approved foreign-invested enterprises increased by almost 78%. Funds going into the high-sector climbed 30%.
Clearly, foreign investors aren’t overly concerned by Made in China 2025. After all, other countries have industrial policies. The US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement has local content rules. India has exorbitant import tariffs. And the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US now targets all of the industries China has listed in its 2025 plan.
China’s openness to foreign investment has served it well—and overseas companies such as BMW AG, DowDuPont Inc. and Apple Inc. that have profited there. The country has a better chance of climbing the technology ladder by exposing its companies to the rigours of world-class competitors than by seeking to shut them out with rhetoric-heavy and substance-light strategy documents. There is little to fear from Made in China 2025.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.