Why India is losing out to Vietnam in attracting companies quitting China

Our Special Correspondent

 NEW DELHI, October 15: In 2020, Chinese auto and electronics major BYD, Apple’s largest contract manufacturer of iPads, was looking to shift some of its capacity from China to India. But the move was shelved after geopolitical tensions erupted between the two countries, and India introduced stiff foreign direct investment (FDI) rules for Chinese companies.Now, two years on, BYD has just started rolling out iPads from Vietnam. It has invested $268 million to set up a new factory with a capacity to churn out 4.33 million tablets a year.

 Vietnam’s gain is India’s loss. The two Asian countries have been aggressively wooing global companies and their suppliers to shift from China. Growing US-China geopolitical tensions and supply chain disruptions due to sudden closures of factories to combat Covid-19 have impelled many tech players to explore other investment destinations.

 India has grabbed one jewel in the crown — Apple Inc. Its vendor Foxconn recently started assembling the latest iPhone 14 within a few days of its global launch. And if everything goes according to script under the production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme, India will account for 12 per cent of the global production value of iPhones, which could go up to 20 per cent by FY26.

The PLI scheme, meant primarily to reduce the cost disadvantage between India and Vietnam for making mobiles, offers an incentive of 4-6 per cent on the production value for five years. But sources in the know clarify that Apple Inc is not shifting manufacture of its AirPods to India.All in all, though, Vietnam is way ahead in the game. Apart from grabbing iPads, The New York Times reported that Google is also shifting the assembly of its latest Pixel 7 mobile phones to Vietnam from China. Reports had said India was also in the reckoning.

 Hanoi has also bagged Chinese mobile player Xiaomi, which is contract-manufacturing phones with Chinese DBG in Vietnam for exports to Thailand and Malaysia. Microsoft is manufacturing Xbox consoles there. In the non-electronics space, toy maker Lego, which was scouting for a factory to cater to growing Asian demand (it has a factory in China), opted for Vietnam recently where it has committed an investment of $1 billion.

 Vietnam’s crowning glory has been Samsung. Since 2008, the Korean chaebol has invested a staggering $19 billion in the country shifting mobile capacity from China. It recently announced an additional $3.3 billion for semiconductors. As much as 50 per cent of its phones are made in Vietnam and 2021 annual exports were $65.5 billion (three times what Apple promised to manufacture in India in FY26).The new battleground for the two countries is in PCs, laptops and tablets as global brands look to hedge against their over-dependence on China: 75 per cent of all laptops are made in that country.

 Vietnam’s share in this space might be just 2 per cent (contract-manufacturing for Dell, Amazon and Google, say reports) but it is furiously licensing contract manufacturers to create capacity and become a hub for the world here, too.To this end, Hanoi has signed an agreement with Foxconn recently to invest $300 million to assemble laptops and tablets, and has given permission to Wistron last year to make computers and peripherals. Nikkei reports that Microsoft might start producing its Surface line, including notebooks and desktops computers.

 India’s answer to woo laptop (the bulk of which are imported from China), PC and tablet makers has been through a Production-Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme for IT products, which has failed to take off. Only around four of the 14 eligible players, domestic and global, have succeeded in meeting their production targets, and they say incentives (an average of 2 per cent) are too low and only for four years.

The electronics ministry is now reworking the plan to cater better to the requirements of global players, who have shown interest in shifting capacity from China if the incentives are attractive enough.Yet the big challenge that India faces — which Vietnam does not — is in setting up a supply chain, which both in mobile and IT products is dominated by Chinese manufacturers. But India’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy has effectively barred them through the automatic approval route, meaning Chinese investment proposals require government scrutiny. Even then, few have been granted permission over the past two years.

 For instance, 10 per cent of Apple’s top 200 vendors are based in Vietnam but the bulk of them are from China. In India, Apple has around 12 global suppliers but only three of them are Chinese firms who entered before the FDI restrictions were imposed. As companies like Apple take a big jump in production from this year, higher value addition is possible only if their Chinese vendors are allowed in. India wants value addition upped from 15-20 per cent to 35 per cent in the next four years. Hanoi imposes no such restrictions; locational proximity enhances its attractiveness.

 Vietnam has two other key advantages — far lower input tariffs than India, and the ability to leverage its plethora of free trade agreements (FTAs) that allow zero duty entry for exports.A preliminary study being undertaken by global companies points out that average most favoured nation tariffs for mobile phones and its supply chain and selected electronics products for 122 products is at around 9.9 per cent in India compared to 5.7 per cent in Vietnam.

 The other problem, say companies, is that unlike Vietnam there is constant fear of differing interpretations and wrong classifications, with the revenue department suddenly raising demands or even accusing global players of round tripping. “There is no pre-consultation and advance authorisation like in Vietnam. Once demands have been made, the only way out is litigation,” said a senior executive of a global electronics company.

 Critically, Vietnam has also leveraged its FTAs with over 56 economies that have helped suppress tariff barriers and make it a potential supply chain strategic hub. For instance, its recent FTA with the European Union has lifted tariffs on 85 per cent of Vietnamese goods. India, meanwhile, has abstained from the most consequential of FTAs — the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

 Of course, India has the advantage of an abundance of skilled labour available at still lower wages. Vietnam’s wage for workers is half of that of China, where rising wages have become a barrier to investment. But India’s worker wages are still a third of that of China, says an executive of a contract manufacturing company. That apart, Vietnam’s much smaller population has a limited number of skilled workers.But most global players say that this one advantage is not enough. Vietnam has much more flexible labour laws that partly neutralise the advantage. Clearly, India will need much more than cheap labour to leverage global corporations’ China Plus-One strategy.


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