Apple’s relationship with China has been described as “untenable,” as the company faces criticism from senators on both sides of the political aisle. But unraveling that relationship will take more than 20 years, according to one former Apple engineer tasked with finding ways to automate production.
There is some good news today, as more than a dozen key Apple suppliers were granted permission to expand their work in India, but ironically this only served to underline the company’s dependence on China…
We’ve written extensively on the risks of Apple’s dependence on China, as well as on the challenges the company faces in addressing this.
The pandemic made even clearer the risks of the company having most of its manufacturing eggs in one basket. Recent COVID-19-related disruption at the world’s biggest iPhone assembly plant was estimated to have cost the company a billion dollars per week.
India is seen as Apple’s main hope when it comes to relocating production outside of China. A report last year suggested that a quarter of all iPhones could be made in India by 2025, and another one this week indicated that this could rise to half of all iPhones by 2027.
But a new report suggests that Apple’s relationship with China could remain as intertwined as ever for at least another couple of decades.
Apple’s relationship with China “untenable”
The Financial Times reports that there is bipartisan concern that Apple is effectively forced to do the bidding of the Communist Party, and that this situation simply cannot continue.
Apple did not just fail to support [protests by iPhone workers]; as it emerged Chinese citizens were using AirDrop to share information, the company limited use of the filesharing tool, in a move seen as acquiescing to Beijing’s demands. It was tantamount to “doing. the bidding” of the Chinese Communist party, said Democrat Mark Warner, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The company has high-profile critics in both parties. Republican Senator Josh Hawley accused Apple of being so dependent on China that it can no longer express basic American values. “When the communists in Beijing tell Apple to jump, it asks, ‘How high?” Hawley says. “Apple’s relationship with China is untenable, both economically and morally.”
Progress in India… but with Chinese companies
Apple’s attempts to increase production in India got a boost in the form of some 14 suppliers being given government permission to expand their operations, reports Bloomberg. But the catch is that these are Chinese companies.
More than a dozen of Apple Inc.’s Chinese suppliers are receiving initial clearance by India to expand in the country, helping the tech giant’s efforts to diversify its assembly network beyond China.
AirPods and iPhone assembler Luxshare Precision Industry Co. and a unit of lensmaker Sunny Optical Technology Group Co. are among the companies gaining approval, people familiar with the matter said.
Progress is also being hampered by political tensions between India and China, in the wake of violent conflicts over disputed borders between the two countries.
While India is now approving several Chinese suppliers’ expansion in the country, some are still getting rejected, the people said. Apple submitted a list of about 17 suppliers to Indian authorities, and a few of them were turned down, at least one because of direct ties to the Chinese government, one of the people said.
“Will take at least 20 years”
One of the key barriers to the large-scale relocation of production lines is that the final assembly process is still very labor-intensive. Only yesterday it was revealed that iPhone production lines require more than 10 times as many workers as equivalent ones for Android phones for Chinese brands.
Apple has been working with Foxconn for many years on automating final assembly, with dreams of entire iPhone plants with just a handful of workers – but one former engineer tasked with this project says that it’s at least 20 years away.
“Apple can’t diversify,” says one former Apple engineer who had been tasked with finding ways to automate production to overcome rising labor costs. This person says the iPhone maker has been striving to move its operations outside China since at least 2014, but with little progress to show for it. “China is going to dominate labor and tech production for another 20 years.”
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