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As Bob Marley said, “If you know your history, then you would know where you’re coming from.”

Wednesday’s post — My Proprietary Chipset — included hyperlinks to specific publications and websites from the 2000s. Some of these are more easily accessed than others. For instance, the link to my testimony before the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission in the 109th Session of Congress (2005) takes you directly to that testimony. However, the links to my testimony at the 108th (2003) and 107th (2001) sessions takes you to the full text of the Commission’s work covering the full session and it takes some perseverance to find one’s way to my testimony. In the spirit of presenting my work on these issues from the 2000s in one, easily accessed location, I will add here to the blog a few archive posts to fill in behind Wednesday’s My Proprietary Chipset post providing readier access to those harder-to-navigate publications.

2003 Testimony, 108th Session of Congress

SUMMARY:

In the information technology sector, Taiwan semiconductor and electronics manufacturing firms are major global actors, and their
expansion into China continues, but without noticeable erosion of Taiwan equity control. In testimony before the Commission, Merritt Cooke, former senior commercial officer at the American Institute in Taiwan, attributed this to the relative stability of ‘‘highly differentiated, high-value supply chains’’ as opposed to the ‘‘instability of far simpler manufacturer-retailer networks characteristic of commodity products.’’ Cooke believes this distinction helps explain the historical pattern of Taiwan investment into the mainland. While many light industry sectors that Taiwan moved to the mainland in the 1980s and 1990s ‘‘have been swallowed up by mainland competitors,’’ highly differentiated, relatively high-value consumer products such as brand-name athletic shoes and high-performance bicycles have remained largely in Taiwan equity hands. ‘‘If these product sectors, with their relatively lower levels of technology and slower product cycles, could stay in Taiwan control for decades, there is every reason to believe that the various IT [information technology] hardware sectors will stay even more firmly in Taiwan’s grip in years ahead,’’ Cooke said. Despite the large and growing Taiwan business presence in the mainland and burgeoning indirect cross-Strait trade and investment, there is a sense in the Taipei business community that Taiwan itself—as a venue for investment, manufacturing, logistics, or finance—is in danger of becoming marginalized within Asia. Kaohsiung’s container port—once the fourth busiest in the world— now ranks sixth, with the Chinese ports of Shenzhen and Shanghai jumping ahead. The American Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan reports that a number of U.S. corporations’ regional headquarters in Taiwan have been eliminated or downgraded to local offices.

2001 Testimony, 107th Session of Congress

TESTIMONY:

STATEMENT OF MERRITT TODD COOKE, JR., CHIEF, COMMERCIAL SECTION, AMERICAN INSTITUTE IN TAIWAN

Mr. COOKE. Mr. Chairman, thank you. I hope the Commission will feel free to overlook the confusion that my parents introduced
with my legal name and call me by the name that I most often respond to, Terry. [Laughter.]
I will also request that, with the consent of the Commission, some paragraphs that I delete in the interest of brevity do be entered into the record. I will spare the Commission a recap of Taiwan’s ten-year structural transformation in the 1990s.
It is an honor to be asked to testify in front of this distinguished panel of Commissioners. In the following brief statement, I will bring to bear my perspective as current Chief of the Commercial Section at the American Institute in Taiwan to address the issues
identified by the Commission in its July 24 invitation letter, specifically the growing interdependence of the U.S., Taiwan, and Chinese high-tech economies.
The strategic interdependence of the U.S. and Taiwan economies has grown steadily throughout the 1990s as Taiwan’s economy has shifted from its traditional structure as a labor-intensive export-oriented economy towards a more service-oriented investment and technology-intensive economy. While Taiwan’s industrial sector has shrunk in relative terms over this period, capital and technology-intensive industries have expanded dramatically. These industries accounted for approximately 75 percent of total manufacturing in 2000, compared to 48 percent in 1986.
Taiwan now supplies 60 percent of the world’s motherboards and is the world’s leading supplier of notebook computers, monitors,
mice, keyboards, video cards, sound cards, on/off switches, LAN cards, graphic cards, scanners, and laser disk drives. Through the
strength of its foundry model, Taiwan has emerged as a preeminent semiconductor supplier to the world.
This transition from the production of labor-intensive goods to high-tech goods has to date proceeded relatively smoothly, even
against the background turbulence of the Asian financial crisis in 1997–98 and a major earthquake occurring on September 21, 1999.
Against the broad backdrop of its structural transformation, two major dynamics have emerged: First, the growing regional partnership and global interdependence of the U.S. and Taiwan high-tech industries, and secondly, the accelerating shift of the lower end of Taiwan’s high-tech production offshore, particularly to mainland China.
One clear indicator of the degree of evolving interdependence with the U.S. was the fact that following the 9/21 earthquake in
Taiwan, the tech markets in New York dropped more in percentage terms than in Taipei.
The scale of this interdependence is likewise highlighted in other ways. For example, four of the top U.S. suppliers of PCs alone procured $20 billion of components from Taiwan to support their 1999 global sales. Additionally, Taiwan will soon have more state-of-the-art 300-millimeter chip wafer fabs in operation than the U.S., Germany, Japan, or any other world market.
The accelerating shift of high-tech production from Taiwan to mainland China has been equally pronounced over this period. The
Taiwan government’s Office of Budget, Accounting, and Statistics reported in February that government approved Taiwan investments in China for 2000 more than doubled from the 1999 levels.
The Taipei Computer Association reported in the same month that 30 percent of Taiwan’s 411 high-technology companies had established major investments in mainland China and that fully 90 percent of those 411 companies planned to be invested in China by the end of 2001.
Lastly, China edged out Taiwan in 2000 for the first time for the number three slot in world IT production value. China came in behind the U.S. and Japan, with $25.5 billion of production value, against Taiwan in fourth place with $23 billion. The key point to
note, however, is that Taiwanese companies generated fully 70 percent of that $25.5 production value in mainland China.
The impending accessions of China and Taiwan to the WTO will likely further accelerate this process of growing cross-straits commercial interdependence in high-tech, with consequent implications for the already highly interdependent U.S. and Taiwan high-tech economies. Although Taiwan’s relatively late liberalization and privatization of its fixed-line monopoly regime will limit somewhat the impact of this development in the telecom sector, the likely effect will be continued fast accelerating cross-straits interdependence in sectors such as PC and notebook assembly, motherboard and other PC component manufacture, production of chip sets for mobile telephony and other applications, scanner and computer peripheral production, and lower end IC production.
A number of important trends will reinforce WTO financial linkages and commercial disciplines and tend to produce this outcome.
First, the network of business relationships which Taiwan firms have established in China represents largely an extension into
China of preexisting product and service supply chain relationships originally established in Taiwan. This greater Taiwan phenomenon in China, localized in growth centers such as Donguan in Guangdong, Xianen in Fujian, and increasingly in the greater Shanghai area, has now reached a critical mass sufficient for greater efficiency in the global supply chain.
Second, the commoditization of IT production worldwide is increasingly pressuring production costs, forcing manufacturers to
distribute a growing number of lower end steps in their production processes to the world’s lowest-cost production centers. Under more than a decade of the KMT or Guangdong’s ‘‘Go South’’ policy, Taiwan manufacturers have quite fully exploited the advantages of relatively low-cost production centers in the Philippines, Thailand, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the one exception to that probably being an expected spurt of Taiwan investment in Vietnam following the ratification and implementation of the U.S.-Vietnam bilateral trade agreement.
At the same time, the KMTs, and now the new administration, the DPP’s ‘‘go slow’’ policy vis-a-vis investment in the mainland has tended to limit the degree to which Taiwan firms could take advantage of the even lower costs of production in China. However, since cost pressure started mounting sharply in March 2000, Taiwan high-tech firms have found themselves no longer able to maintain global competitiveness without relocating a greater share of their production to China, the lowest cost major production center in the Asian production platform.
A third trend really represents a number of technology trends that underlie an emerging division of labor in high-tech production
between Taiwan and the PRC. Without trying to go into any of these, I would just note the increasing specialization of national
economies in the globalized IT industry segments. For instance, fully half of Finland’s GDP is dedicated to wireless telephony.
Secondly, the migration of value away from hardware assembly and towards embedded software technologies in scanners, in peripherals, in Internet appliances, and so on.
And a third technology trend being the steep rise in investment costs and shorter product cycles in the IC semiconductor sector.
A fourth and final trend, the Taiwan and China markets are
largely complementary, creating unique opportunities for commercial cooperation between these political rivals. For instance, Taiwan firms have generally failed to establish global brand and to capture the higher valuations that accrue to brand-name products. However, the large size of the China market, the skill and cultural familiarity of Taiwan business managers, and the high regard which China’s consumers have for Taiwan’s products are now giving Taiwan firms a chance to establish brand names on a large-scale regional basis as opposed to global basis.
Each one of these trends holds important implications for U.S. interests. The establishment of Taiwan regional brands might, for
instance, tend to weaken the existing cooperative bonds between U.S. and Taiwan alliance partners and foster more direct competition in the region. Conversely, the combination of U.S. innovation, Taiwan regional management skill, and the largely untapped potential of the developing China market is already creating a set of
opportunities for enhanced commercial cooperation among traditional U.S. and Taiwan partners.
The rapid proliferation of commercial ties between Taiwan and China is of major importance to U.S. interests. There are the narrower set of commercial implications for the U.S. competitive posture in regional and global markets, to which I have just alluded. Also, as Rupert Hammond Chambers, President of the U.S. ROC Business Council suggested in his June 14 testimony to this Commission, there are equally important implications which fast-growing commercial interdependence between Taiwan and China have for traditional U.S. military and security interests in the Straits of Taiwan.
I commend the Commission for focusing attention on the extent to which commercial dynamics in the computer electronics and telecommunications sectors are affecting these interests. It is my personal observation that these market and technology-driven dynamics are not always fully captured in the dialogue regarding our key
interests in this potential flash point region of the world. Thank you very much.

[The statement follows:]
PREPARED STATEMENT OF MERRITT TODD COOKE, JR.
It is an honor to be asked to testify in front of this distinguished panel of Commissioners. It is also, personally, a distinct pleasure to see again a number of former Departmental and Embassy colleagues as well as others with whom I have had the
past pleasure of working on various overseas and stateside activities. In the following brief statement, I will bring to bear my perspective as current Chief of the Commercial Section at the American Institute in Taiwan to address the issues identified by the Commission in its July 24th invitation letter.
The strategic interdependence of the U.S. and Taiwan economies has grown steadily throughout the 1990s as Taiwan’s economy has shifted from its traditional structure as a labor-intensive, export-oriented economy towards a more services-oriented,
investment- and technology-intensive economy. While Taiwan’s industrial sector has
shrunk in relative terms over this period, capital- and technology-intensive industries have expanded dramatically. These industries accounted for approximately 75 percent of total manufacturing in 2000, compared to 48 percent in 1986. During this
structural transition, labor-intensive industries, such as toys, footwear, umbrellas,
and garments, relocated offshore. Their place was taken by petrochemicals, metal products, machinery, and ‘‘most dramatically during the 1990s’’ by technology-oriented industries, such as electronic, electric, and information products.
By 2000, more than half of the top ten manufacturing firms in Taiwan were electronic and computer manufacturing firms, compared with only two in 1993. More than half of the top ten manufactured products were in the areas of integrated circuits (ICs), personal computers, and computer peripherals, whereas in 1993, only ICs had been among the top ten. Taiwan now supplies 60% of the world’s motherboards and is the world’s leading supplier of notebook computers, monitors, mice, keyboards, video cards, sound cards, on-off switches, LAN cards, graphics cards, scanners, and laser disk drives. Through the strength of its foundry model, Taiwan has emerged as a preeminent semiconductor supplier to the world. This transition from the production of labor-intensive goods to high-tech goods has, to date, proceeded relatively smoothly, even against the background turbulence of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997–98 and a major earthquake occurring on September 21, 1999.
Against the broad backdrop of this structural transformation, two major dynamics have emerged: (1) the growing regional partnership and global interdependence of the U.S. and Taiwan high-tech industries and (2) the accelerating shift of the lowerend of Taiwan’s high-tech production offshore, particularly to mainland China. One clear indicator of the degree of evolving interdependence with the U.S. was the fact that, following the 9–21(–99) earthquake in Taiwan, the tech markets in New York
dropped more in percentage terms than in Taipei. The scale of this interdependence is likewise highlighted in other ways. For example, four of the top U.S. suppliers of PCs alone procured $20 billion (USD) of components from Taiwan to support their
1999 global sales. Additionally, Taiwan will soon have more state-of-the-art 300mm chip-wafer fabs in operation than the U.S., Germany, Japan or any other world market.
The accelerating shift of high-tech production from Taiwan to mainland China has been equally pronounced over this period. The Taiwan Government’s Office of Budget, Accounting, and Statistics reported in February that government-approved Taiwan investments in China for 2000 more than doubled from the 1999 levels. The Taipei Computer Association reported in the same month that 30 percent of Taiwan’s 411 high technology companies had established major investments in mainland China and that fully 90 percent of those 411 companies planned to be invested in China by the end of 2001. Lastly, China edged out Taiwan in 2000 for the first time for the number three slot in world IT production value. China came in behindthe U.S. and Japan with $25.5 billion of production value against Taiwan in fourth place with $23 billion. The key point to note, however, is that Taiwanese companies generated fully 70% of that $25.5 production value in Mainland China.
The impending accessions of China and Taiwan to the WTO will likely further accelerate this process of growing cross-straits commercial interdependence in hightech, with consequent implications for the already highly interdependent U.S. and Taiwan high-tech economies. Although Taiwan’s relatively late liberalization and privatization of its fixed-line monopoly regime will limit somewhat the impact of this development in the telecoms sector, the likely effect will be continued fast-accelerating cross-straits interdependence in sectors such as PC and notebook assembly, motherboard and other PC component manufacture, production of chipsets for mobile telephony and other applications, scanner and computer peripheral production, and lower-end IC production. A number of important trends will reinforce WTO financial linkages and commercial disciplines and tend to produce this outcome:
—First, the network of business relationships which Taiwan firms have established in China represents largely an extension into China of pre-existing product and service supply-chain relationships originally established in Taiwan. This ‘‘Greater Taiwan’’ phenomenon in China, localized in growth centers such as Dongguan (Guangdong), Xiamen (Fujian) and, increasingly, the Greater
Shanghai area, has now reached a critical mass sufficient for greater efficiency in the global supply chain;
—Second, the commoditization of IT production worldwide is increasingly pressuring production costs, forcing manufacturers to distribute a growing number of lower-end steps in their production processes to the world’s lowest-cost production centers. Under more than a decade of the KMT’s ‘‘Go South’’ policy, Taiwan manufacturers have quite fully exploited the advantages of relatively low-cost production centers in the Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. (The exception to this being an expected spurt of Taiwan investment in Vietnam following the ratification and implementation of the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement). At the same time, the KMT’s (and now the DPP’s) ‘‘Go Slow’’ policy vis-a`-vis investment in the mainland tended to limit the degree to which Taiwan firms could take advantage of the even lower costs-of-production in China. However, since cost pressures started mounting sharply in March 2000, Taiwan high-tech firms have found themselves no longer able to maintain
global competitiveness without relocating a greater share of their production to China, the lowest-cost major production center in the Asian production platform;
—Third, a number of technology trends underlie an emerging division of labor in high-tech production between Taiwan and the PRC. Among these, are (a) the increasing specialization of national economies in globalized IT industry-segments (e.g., fully half of Finland’s GDP is now generated from wireless related technologies); (b) the migration of value away from hardware assembly and towards imbedded software (e.g., scanners and other peripherals, Internet Appliances, etc.); and (c) the steep rise in investment cost and shorter product cycles in the IC/semiconductor sector; and
—Fourth, the Taiwan and China markets are largely complementary, creating
unique opportunities for commercial cooperation between these political rivals. For instance, Taiwan firms have generally failed to establish global brands and to capture the higher market valuations that accrue to brand-name products. However, the large size of the China market, the skill and cultural familiarity of Taiwan business managers with that market, and the high regard which Chinese consumers have for Taiwan products, are now giving Taiwan firms the chance to establish brand-names on a large-scale regional basis. Further, Taiwan’s proven skills in development and service-oriented management of global IT technologies, coupled with the breadth and potential of China’s basic research capabilities, create distinct opportunities for partnership in regional innovation.
Each one of these trends holds important implications for U.S. interests. The establishment of Taiwan regional brands might, for instance, tend to weaken the existing cooperative bonds between U.S. and Taiwan alliance partners and foster more direct competition in the region. Conversely, the combination of U.S. innovation, Taiwan regional management skill, and the largely-untapped potential of the developing China market is already creating a set of opportunities for enhanced commercial cooperation among traditional U.S. and Taiwan partners.
The rapid proliferation of commercial ties between Taiwan and China is of major importance to U.S. interests. There are the narrower set of commercial implications for the U.S. competitive posture in regional and global markets, to which I have just
alluded. Also, as Rupert Hammond-Chambers, President of the U.S.-R.O.C. (Taiwan) Business Council, suggested in his June 14 testimony to this Commission, there are equally important implications which fast-growing commercial interdependence between Taiwan and China have for traditional U.S. military and security interests in the Straits of Taiwan. I commend the Commission for focusing attention on the extent to which commercial dynamics in the computer electronics and telecommunications sectors are affecting these interests. It is my personal observation that these market- and technology-driven dynamics are not always fully captured in the dialogue regarding our key interests in this potential flashpoint region of the world.

So interesting how an existential threat — near-term: Russia/Ukraine; longer-term: China/Taiwan — helps focus the national mind.

The Biden Administration announced on Tuesday that, in rapid-fire sequence following the launch of the multi-lateral Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) in Tokyo last week, the U.S. Government is making a decisive step, through Executive Action, in the direction of a bilateral U.S.-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

The economic logic in support of a U.S.-Taiwan FTA was evident 20 years ago. Here, dusted off, are two publications which make that point:

Now, finally, U.S. domestic political logic is swinging in line with the geoeconomic imperatives. If it comes to pass, it will have been worth the wait.

Over 10 years, Xi Jinping has methodically amassed power. Beginning with an unprecedented consolidation of military support, Xi then launched his ‘Tigers and Flies’ campaign, sidelining his political rivals along with officials accused of corruption. Over many years he patiently laid the groundwork to elevate Xi Jinping Thought to match the official stature of Mao Zedong Thought, and edge out Deng Xiaoping Thought, in the CCP’s ideological pantheon. He then overturned international commitments regarding Hong Kong, and brought that free-wheeling and Westernized city to heel with the introduction of a new security law. At the last 19th Party Congress in 2017, Xi tossed aside Deng’s “hide-and-abide” (韜光養晦、有所作為) approach to international relations and gave a triumphalist speech, announcing that China had not only arrived on the world stage but that it deserved central position on that stage. With the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic, Xi used sharp-elbow tactics to block scientific investigation into its origins in China and ordered sweeping zero-Covid lockdowns to highlight his government’s ability to take more effective action than was possible for democratic governments in the US and the West.  The Winter Olympics were meant to be Xi’s star-turn to demonstrate — more to the Chinese people than to international audiences (many of whom undertook diplomatic boycotts of the Games because of oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and other issues) — that he was a flawless and unrivalled champion.  He even went so far as to claim that the authoritarian system he presided over represented a superior form of democracy to Western liberal democracy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping during a show commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China

Along this path to unrivalled power in China, Xi first jettisoned the system of collective rule by the Standing Committee of the Politburo which Deng had put in place to guard against recurrence of unbridled rule by any one individual, epitomized by the last years of Mao’s rule.  Longer term, Xi’s aim in amassing power has been to discard the limit of a president to two five-year terms, another safeguard Deng put in place and which he himself observed.

The announcement of leadership for the next five-year term will happen at the CCP’s 20th Party Congress in Beijing this autumn. At that meeting, Xi is widely expected to be named for a precedent-shattering third term. This will mark a historic high-point for Xi. His systematic consolidation of power has been designed, in part, to create an air of inevitability about this outcome. While his selection is still overwhelmingly likely, a number of significant fissures have appeared in recent weeks which crack this façade of total control.

ZERO-COVID

While undoubtedly successful in limiting the number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths in the first two years of the pandemic, Xi’s Zero-Covid policy has created a raft of problems for China more recently, most notably during the highly-transmissible omicron phase. While incidences of infection, hospitalization and death have been dropping worldwide, they have been surging in China, with the number of confirmed cases more than quadrupling from mid-February to mid-March of this year. Elderly citizens are especially at risk due to their low rates of vaccination and hospitals have already become overwhelmed, due in part to the low number of hospital beds on a per capita basis in China. While it can be argued that the Zero-Covid policy ‘bought time’ for the development of vaccines, Xi’s championing of the locally developed Sinovac vaccine and his refusal to permit the use of more clinically-effective vaccines developed in the West, has blunted that advantage somewhat since the Sinovac vaccine is notably less effective against the omicron variant. The Zero-Covid policy has also meant that there is practically zero immunity in the Chinese population as a result of exposure to the virus as it becomes endemic worldwide. If SARS-COV-2 can be compared to a flame, China’s population is like a vast field of tinder. Finally, the economic and social costs have become glaringly apparent with the lockdown of an entire province, Jilin, in the northeast and the of Shenzhen and Dongguan – China’s two largest manufacturing hubs for information and communications technology (ICT) — in the south.

While Xi will, with considerable justification, continue to claim credit for his “triumph” over the coronavirus, China is by no means out of the pandemic woods and the setbacks of the last month make his strident claims ring more hollow, both internationally and domestically.

REAL ESTATE

In September last year, Chinese real-estate development firms began to feel the severe discomfort of a massive hang-over following years of real-estate speculation partying.  The problems were most evident in real-estate giant Evergrande but soon spread to a host of other significant players in the field such as Fantasia, Modern Land, China Property Group and Xinyuan Real Estate Group.  At the institutional level, the problems hitting the $5 trillion sector were the result of a unique PRC nexus of aggressive real estate development, lax banking, and local government incentive structures.  More simply, the problems resulted from “unrestrained borrowing, expansion as an end-in-itself, and corruption.”  

While the PRC Government claimed this week that the real-estate free-fall has been “stabilized,” pricing data from real estate developers across the country continue to show sharp deterioration. Also this week, Evergrande announced a further delay in sharing its plan for restructuring and for paying back bonds and other financial obligations.  The government has strong reason to put on a brave face while throwing up a curtain of opacity around the problem.  Property-related industries account for more than 30% of China’s economic output.  Continued problems in the sector could drag China’s growth below the optimistic, post-pandemic official target of 5% growth, a minimum level which must be maintained in the years ahead for China to escape the ‘middle income trap.’ More immediately, it risks alienating an important swath of the urban public, 80% of whose household wealth is tied up in real estate and who see their property values plummeting. (A particularly aggrieved segment of this population are buyers who have paid up front to the developers, as is common in China, for a property not yet built and for which construction has halted indefinitely while values continue to slide).

While Xi has voiced loud promises to not let the bottom fall out of this sector and to support homeowners currently caught in the fallout, there is little evidence on the ground of these promises translating into reality.  Meanwhile, the situation risks alienating the public and sowing dissent among officials.

‘COMMON PROSPERITY’

As measured by the Gini coefficient, China ranked fourth in the world in 2022 for greatest wealth disparity and inequality (after South Africa, Namibia and Sri Lanka). While Deng Xiaoping had announced famously in the late 1980s that “to get rich is glorious” and to “let some get rich first,” the extreme degree of inequality persisting in China four decades later is a source of growing social and political concern. The heady days of 10% growth have long ago disappeared and Chinese who thought they would be boarding on a later rail-car in the national train of prosperity now worry that the train may have departed, stranding them on the platform.

To counter this source of social unease, Xi unveiled with great fanfare in 2021 a policy of ‘Common Prosperity.” Writ large, this policy was meant to cement Xi’s place — side-by-side with Mao and with Deng slightly in the background – in China’s pantheon of modern heroes.  In this telling, Mao was the one who roused China to throw off its ‘Sick Man of Asia’ bondage to foreign imperialists and to stand up. Deng contrived a transitional stage of capitalist-style wealth-creation for enough Chinese that China could attain wealth and power (富权). It was left to Xi to complete this project of national rejuvenation, by reinstituting a Marxist “Common Prosperity’ for all Chinese and returning China to the center of the world stage.

Without getting into either the ideological weeds (such as Xi’s ‘Dual Circulation’ strategy) or deep into the tangle of economic measures (e.g., restrictions on overseas listings by Chinese companies, user-data and other controls put on Chinese Big Tech firms, clampdown on student test-prep and video game commercial sectors, etc) which Xi embraced in 2021 to advance his Common Prosperity agenda, the general effect was felt quickly and keenly in the form of abrupt economic slowdown. In the first quarter of this year, the Common Prosperity program has been ‘walked back’ by numerous party officials who have emphasized that it represents a historic project more than an immediate project. Premier Li Keqiang, in his lengthy speech to 3,000 deputies at the opening of the National People’s Congress earlier in the month, mentioned Common Prosperity only one time. For educated Chinese — who have been skillfully parsing official pronouncements closely ever since the Cultural Revolution for clues about where the country is headed — this lack of visibility and endorsement for Xi Jinping’s signature program represents a remarkable degree of push-back for Xi by top-level leaders.

UKRAINE

Chris Buckley’s report in last Friday’s New York Times traces the contours of what is potentially the most damaging crack to appear in Xi’s carefully-crafted, monolithic façade of power and control.  The article details the war of words that has erupted on the Chinese internet following the warning delivered by a respected scholar and politically-connected insider, Hu Wei, to the effect that China “risked becoming a pariah if it didn’t denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” As was covered in last week’s post and as continues to play out this week, Chinese officials have contorted themselves by claiming to be neutral and wanting peace while following Putin’s lead in not calling the ‘special military operation’ either a war or an invasion, in not objecting to Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and in amplifying Kremlin disinformation about U.S. bio-military labs in Ukraine. 

As argued last week, this has the potential to grow into a strategic blunder for China with significant geopolitical fall-out. It may affect not only Xi’s ambitions to retake Taiwan – the last territorial piece in his China Rejuvenation plan – but to bear long term costs for China as a rising power in the Indo-Pacific region and for its standing in the world at large.

None of this is to suggest that Xi will not get his third term as President this fall. It is only to say that the carefully-cultivated blooms of infallibility and inevitability are now off the XJP rose.

Xi has been in power for less than half of Putin’s tenure (18 years as President and 4 years as the power behind the throne for Medvedev) but there are doubtless people in Zhongnanhai wondering to themselves, post-Putin’s invasion, whether Deng didn’t get it right with his moves to limit the untrammeled exercise of power by an individual leader.

On February 4th, at the conclusion of their day-long summit in Beijing, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping declared that the friendship between Russia and China “has no limits.” That same day, the Beijing Winter Olympics officially began, ending a little more than two weeks later on February 20th. On February 24th, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began.

There has been extensive analysis of the three major miscalculations Putin has made up to this point: (1) his overestimation of the readiness and effectiveness of his military machine; (2) his underestimation of the resilience and fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people; and (3) the speed and scale with which NATO and EU countries, along with many others, have come together to sanction Russia and to support Ukraine (in all ways short of direct military involvement on, or in the air above, Ukrainian territory). It is too early to tell whether a fourth major miscalculation may have to do with Putin’s misplaced faith in the degree of economic, financial and trade support which China would provide Russia to backfill against these sanctions).

But what about Xi Jinping? What is his calculus for advancing (his interpretation of) China’s interests through this crisis? And what miscalculations has he appeared to have made so far?

Xi’s first miscalculation was immediate and damaging. He is known to have had some discussion with Putin on Feb. 4th about the imminent “special operation” in Ukraine. It is not clear whether Putin lied to him or Xi simply failed to ask the right questions to take Putin’s measure. In either case, Xi Jinping is known to have been caught by surprise and ‘perturbed’ by the scale, duration and ruthlessness of Putin’s “special operation.” As described in my February 4th post “Four Seismic U.S.-China-Russia Shifts,” Putin’s move forced Xi, unexpectedly and very publicly, to choose between his new-found friendship without limits and adherence to China’s mantra-like stated policy of non-interference in the affairs of sovereign nations, as enunciated in 1954 in Zhou Enlai’s Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence (and championed explicitly with regard to Ukraine’s territorial integrity following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014)

Evidence of Xi’s miscalculation of Putin’s intentions in Ukraine became apparent in the initially hesitant and fence-sitting response by the PRC officials during the first two weeks of the crisis. On the one hand, Chinese officials refused to refer to the invasion publicly with any term other than Putin’s Orwellian “special operation” terminology; pivoted reliably to blaming the crisis on NATO rather than Russia aggression; blocked a series of actions from being taken against Russia in the U.N. Security Council; amplified Russian disinformation about the U.S. operating bio-military labs in Ukraine (a play out of the FSK, formerly KGB, playbook which suggests that Putin is contemplating the use of bio- or chemical weapons and is ready to throw sand in the world’s eyes by blaming the U.S. and/or NATO for their eventual use); and has even embedded Chinese journalists with Russian military units on the ground in Ukraine. On the other, China says its the friend of both Ukraine and Russia; talks about the need for the cessation of violence; offers publicly to mediate between the two sides while not actually taking any steps toward a mediation effort); and repeats the mantra of its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence as if Putin’s actions in Ukraine were taking place in some parallel universe.

There have been other related miscalculatiions. For instance, the PRC Government has been repeatedly caught off balance by the Biden Administration’s aggressive use of classified U.S. intelligence findings, with his Administration quickly de-classifying key reports and pushing the information out into the public sphere, both domestically and internationally. This began with President Biden’s sharing in real-time with the world the U.S. intelligence community’s pre-invasion assessments that Putin had made the decision to invade. This very public use of previously hush-hush intelligence findings marks a clear break from past White House precedent and has also been aimed at China in recent weeks: first, in divulging the fact that Xi Jinping had prior knowledge of the invasion from his Feb. 4th meeting with Putin and that Xi had, in fact, asked Putin to hold off on initiating that military operation until after the conclusion of the Beijing Winter Olympics; and, second, in disclosing publicly on the eve of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s March 14th meeting with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi the fact that Beijing had received requests from Moscow for military and economic assistance to aid its war effort. These and other revelations have punctured China’s contrived public posture and shown that, behind the peaceful resolution rhetoric and thin veil of neutrality in the conflict, the reality is that China is not sitting on the fence but has indeed been coming down on Russia’s side.

The initial confusion in China’s response and now the growing evidence of China’s support, up to a point, for Russia were probably to be expected : under-the-table support for Putin was inevitable given the top-down nature of Chinese government decision-making and the personal investment which Xi had made in Putin and Russia just weeks earlier. Just as powerfully through, China wants to keep some fig-leaf semblance of its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence policy because its repudiation would roil China’s international relations, among others, with its Belt & Road Initiative partner countries. Equally, it does not want to run afoul of the trip wire of U.S.-led financial and economic sanctions by aiding Russia overtly with military aid, financial relief or with trade in sanctioned commodities like microchips, especially following the stern warning delivered by Secretary Blinken earlier this week.

Over the last week, there are signs that the Beijing leadership is trying to “elevate” its initial indecision and aloofness into what it believes can be a long-term winning strategy for coming out ahead of the West when flames die out and the dust settles from the Ukraine conflagration. The Zhongnanhai thesis is that it is not worldwide supporters of post-WWII liberal democracy that are rallying to support Ukraine as much as it is a “civilizational” struggle between a Russian identity promulgated by Putin and a Western identity and set of values represented primarily by the U.S. and Europe. The thinking goes that, if China stands back from this clash, it can pick up the pieces and emerge stronger than either of the two depleted civilizational antagonists. This accords with Xi Jinping’s decade-long championing of the rejuvenation, and even superiority, of Han identity and the Chinese model. In Xi’s thinking, this policy of studious and disciplined aloofness — limited to cheering on Russia with “dog-whistle” encouragement and forms of back-channel support it can get away with while seizing opportunities to denigrate the West to his domestic audience and to countries in Central Asia, the Pacific, and Africa — has two clear advantages: (1) it avoids any risk for Xi in decisively backing ‘a loser’ in Putin, an outcome already sealed in his international pariah status and increasingly likely on the battlefield even if Kiev is taken and the war shifts to an insurgency; and (2) it gives Xi space to attend to the many immediate challenges facing him in the run-up to the critical Party Congress this fall where he is bidding for a third, controversial term as President. Those challenges include: a sharp fall-off in economic performance (brought on in part by excesses of his own Common Prosperity policy introduced over the past year; rapidly rising Covid case-counts and lock-downs in Shenzhen and Donguan in the south, in Shanghai and in Jilin to the northeast; and the recent hardening of attitudes toward China throughout much of the world as ably analyzed by Elizabeth Economy in The World According to China and in her Jan/Feb 2022 article in Foreign Affairs.

The jury is out but I submit that this policy of official aloofness may well prove to be Xi Jinping’s biggest and longest-lasting miscalculation with regard to Ukraine. Xi may think in ethno-nationalist terms, but much of the world’s response is underpinned by non-Western allies such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore who have benefitted from, and are committed to upholding, the post-WWII order based on national sovereignity and the rule of law. In fact, it is Taiwan which represents and symbolizes the fullest repudiation of Xi’s thesis. Absent some mis-adventure by North Korea (which is a disturbing possibility) or a premature move by Xi to extinguish the symbol Taiwan represents (which I consider very unlikely in the near-term), Xi’s official ‘aloofness’ and sub-rosa support for Putin will be remembered by the world in the wake of the Ukraine conflict. There are times when a person, or a nation, must choose sides. Not choosing sides in such situations is, in fact, a choice that is noticed and remembered. Pretending not to choose sides while actually backing the ‘wrong side’ is morally repugnant. There is not a middle way.

On June 8th, the Biden Administration announced immediate actions it was taking to address near-term vulnerabilities in four critical supply chains as identified by a 100-day America’s Supply Chains assessment initiated in late February.  The four critical supply chains included in this announcement are: semiconductor manufacturing and advanced packaging; large capacity batteries, like those for electric vehicles; critical minerals and materials (so-called “rare earths”) used in smart phones, electric vehicles, wind turbines and other advanced technologies; and pharmaceuticals and active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) used in vaccines and other applications.

Today’s post takes an initial high-level view of the critical supply chain for semiconductor manufacturing and examines the shifting fault-line of vulnerability.  Subsequent posts in the Global TECHtonics series will take a much closer look at these and related issues.


Photo: barks/Adobe Stock

What is the Fault-line?

The semiconductor supply chain fault-line runs directly under Taiwan, whose chip foundries produce 92% of the world’s most advanced microchips (which have transistors less than one-thousandth the width of a human hair).  The small island is caught between the tectonic forces of the China market (which accounts for 53% of global semiconductor consumption and the U.S. market (which accounts for the vast majority of the advanced designs on which Taiwan chip production is based).  In addition to these market forces, political dynamics add to the stresses along this fault-line.  While China claims Taiwan as an inalienable part of its territory, the U.S. has been serving as the guarantor of Taiwan’s de facto independence since 1949. In more recent years, the Trump Administration’s “Tariff War” against China has given impetus to a process of technology “de-coupling” which is forcing Taiwan companies – especially its preeminent foundry manufacturer Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) – to choose between the fast-growing China market (34% revenue growth since 2014) and its slower growing (4% growth) but highly strategic U.S. customers, including the U.S. military. The fact, for instance, that 14 of TSMC’s 17 foundries worldwide (and all of its foundries capable of higher-end production above the 16 nanometer level) are located in Taiwan at a distance of just 90 miles from the PRC mainland adds to the tectonic friction.

What is the Trend-line?

Subsequent posts in the Global TECHtonic series (approximately two per month) will examine a broad range of dynamics in detail to include the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on global microchip supply chains, specific dynamics within microchip subproduct categories (logic chips, analog chips, memory chips, etc), TSMC’s strategic response to the increasing global pressure and detailed analysis of trends within the U.S. semiconductor industry.  Today’s post will limit itself to two broad brush-strokes to suggest the general trend-line: (1) the twenty-year trend-line since 2001 and (2) the one-year trend-line since 2020.

  • The accession of China and Taiwan to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 led to hopes that Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) supply chain tensions might start easing but, from 2008 at least, the opposite has proved true.  Following the Global Financial Crisis, market forces and competitive tensions increased pressures on ICT supply chains markedly and these pressures further accelerated starting in 2012 following the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress in 2012.  (Readers interested in a deeper understanding of the ICT supply chain dynamics covering the period 2001-2008 can refer to Congressional Commission testimony I provided during the 107th, 108th and 109th Sessions of Congress as well as to my article in the edited volume Economic Integration, Democratization and National Security in East Asia (Peter Chow, Elgar Publishing) and my article in The Journal of Contemporary China (Volume 13, Number 40, 2006).
  • The past year has shown some notable shifts along this fault-line. In Taiwan, policies instituted by President Tsai Ing-wen have led to a small shift in Taiwan’s trading dependence on China and to larger shifts in the pattern of outbound and inbound investment involving China.  Specifically, the Tsai Administration’s New Southbound Policy has shifted a small portion of Taiwan’s trade in consumer electronics away from China in favor of Southeast Asian markets.  More notably, the “Invest Taiwan” program has exceeded its targets and much of the reinvestment in Taiwan comes as a result of production being repatriated from the mainland. As for outbound investment from Taiwan in ICT sectors, recent trends favor the U.S. as a destination rather than China.  In March 2020, TSMC announced that it would be building a $12 billion microchip production plant in Arizona.  Meanwhile, tighter regulations by Taiwan’s Investment Commission has led to a 60% drop in outbound investment to the mainland since 2018.

It is for these and other reasons that the New York Times recently proclaimed “pound for pound, Taiwan is the most important place in the world.”  The Strait of Hormuz may have been the world’s most dangerous fault-line in the 20th century oil economy.  In the 21st century, the tectonic pressures of the global economy now converge on the Strait of Taiwan.

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