In the contemporary global supply chain landscape, the ripple effects of geopolitical tensions and the pandemic have underscored the necessity for a robust and diversified supply management strategy, especially for Multinational Corporations (MNCs) striving to thrive in the Asian market, while also maintaining an ever-present focus on China. The China + N paradigm emerges as a strategic response to these challenges, where ‘N’ symbolizes a variety of alternative sourcing and manufacturing hubs within Asia. This narrative extends beyond mere re-shoring, advocating for a balanced exploration of different locales to mitigate risks associated with over-dependence on a single country. The following piece puts a spotlight on this paradigm, highlighting how this manifests itself in the real-world, and examining the evolving economic dynamics in Asia. 

Broadening the scope beyond China: 

The search for alternative manufacturing hubs has cast a spotlight on China’s neighbouring nations like Vietnam, Indonesia, and India. These countries, with their competitive labour costs, improving infrastructure, and favourable trade frameworks, are emerging as attractive alternatives for MNCs. For instance, Vietnam has been traditionally viewed as a regional alternative to China and has continued to hold its ground as a top-three sourcing market​​23. Similarly, the strategic movements by MNCs like Apple and Foxconn in expanding their production footprints in India and Vietnam respectively, underscore a broader trend of geographical diversification. 

The economic pulse of Asia: 

By 2030, Asia is expected to contribute roughly 60% of global growth, with the Asia-Pacific region accounting for 90% of the 2.4 billion new members of the middle class entering the global economy​3​​4​. These figures are a testament to the burgeoning middle class, poised to evolve into a significant consumer base in the growing region. For MNCs, this demographic shift, coupled with Asia’s economic ascendancy, underscores the indispensability of investment across various sectors within this vibrant region. 

The enduring significance of China: 

Despite the drive towards diversification in Asia, China remains a crucial market, especially for the Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) sector. Companies like Mars or P&G would find it challenging to swiftly shift their manufacturing bases due to the proximity to the vast consumer base in China. This isn’t even accounting for the strong consumer demand for certain product lines in the market.  For instance, the ready-to-drink sector in China is anticipated to grow by 11.43% YoY in 2023​3, with Nestle’s ready-to-drink coffee line being a part of this growth trajectory.  These scenarios advocate for a nuanced approach, such as a ‘China for China’ strategy, ensuring close alignment with market demands and organizational strategies. 

Sustainable transitions: 

Sustainability is increasingly at the core of modern supply chain strategies globally. The environmental and social implications of supply chains are under the spotlight, and MNCs are recognizing the need to integrate sustainable practices in their operations in Asia and beyond.  Both Walmart and General Electric (GE) have embarked on green supply chain initiatives in China. They have partnered with NGOs to provide technical assistance to their Chinese suppliers, enhancing their environmental management techniques and enhancing energy efficiency. This example highlights MNCs blending sustainability and geographical diversification within the China + N paradigm, aligning business goals with environmental stewardship, and elevating brand reputation too in the process. 

Challenges ahead: 

While alternative hubs are gaining traction, the capacity and quality gap, as seen in the comparison between China and India’s manufacturing sectors, cannot be overlooked. We can see this case in point in recent diversification endeavours of MNCs like Apple. Debates have surfaced regarding the current quality of iPhone’s produced in India vis-a-vis those manufactured in China. For example, it was reported earlier this year how only 50% of iPhone casings made in India met Apple’s global quality standards. And while both China and India have contributed to the production volumes of the latest iPhone 15 series, the share from China still outpaces that from India, indicating a quality and capacity differential that is yet to be bridged between other countries and the capabilities that have been developed in China 

Key considerations for MNCs: 

1. Strategic geographical diversification: 

  • Conduct in-depth market research to identify viable manufacturing hubs outside China like Vietnam, Indonesia, and India. Evaluate the trade frameworks, labour costs, and infrastructural developments in these regions against the backdrop of your organizational needs 
  • Before large scale investment, establish pilot operations and co-partner with specialist organisations to understand the ground realities better, and to mitigate risks associated with diversification 
  • As you diversify, ensure robust mechanisms are in place to safeguard your technologies, R&D capabilities, and manufacturing know-how across the diverse geographical locales to protect your IP 

2. Optimization for Asia’s economic landscape: 

  • Engage in consumer behaviour analysis to tailor product or service offerings to meet the unique demands of Asia’s burgeoning middle class 
  • Establish operations in regions with quick, cost-effective product delivery capabilities to meet market demand. Evaluate logistics costs and ensure a reliable upstream supply base 
  • Stay up-to-date of the tariffs and trade restrictions in intended markets, ensuring compliance while exploring opportunities for cost efficiency 

3. Sustainable supply chain transformation: 

  • Set and communicate clear sustainability benchmarks extending down the supply chain, establishing monitoring and evaluation frameworks for measuring progress.  Leveraging regional expertise to co-partner with where needed 
  • Explore collaborations with local or international organisations to enhance sustainable practices, such as Walmart and GE initiatives in China 
  • Cultivate an understanding of the cultural nuances in alternative markets which is instrumental in fostering partnerships, ensuring smooth operations, and aligning with local sustainability standards 

In conclusion, the China + N paradigm signifies a more resilient, agile, and future-ready supply chain, encapsulating a broader geographical spectrum in the wider Asia pacific region to mitigate a combination of potential risks. As MNCs embark on this transformational journey, a well-considered strategy underscored by thorough market analysis, collaborative partnerships, and leveraging regional trade agreements could unveil a blueprint for a balanced, risk-mitigated supply chain amidst evolving global challenges. 

Adam Yee

Lead Consultant

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