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Japanese Dilemma: India Vs Vietnam For Alternative Investment Destination To China – Analysis

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Ever since the Japanese Prime Minster announced a US$2.2 billion incentive to the Japanese investors to vacate China and shift to Japan or other developing nations, media and think tanks were abuzz with India and Vietnam as the most promising alternative destinations for China.

However, Japanese investors were in dilemma with the survey results. They were not uniform in revealing the best among the two. While some surveys advocated Vietnam a more promising destination, others went for India. While a survey by NNA Japan Co in January 2020 – a Japanese based Kyodo News Group – decoded Vietnam as the most promising destination for Japanese investors, JBIC  survey (Japan Bank for International Cooperation)  elevated India to the top rank for investment destination. In its 31st survey made in November 2019, JBIC advocated India as the most attractive investment in 2019, leaving behind China and Vietnam at second and third positions respectively. The survey further revealed that India’s surge in the rank was due to a drop in voting rates in China. In other words, China’s drop paved the way for India to rise to the top for investment destination. 

Nonetheless, opinion surveys are an indication and their reliability depends upon the coverage of the opinions leaders. Whereas, data speaks for themselves more determinately about the trend. According to METI, India emerged as the 5th biggest receiver of Japanese investment in Asia in 2019 (BOP base), leaving behind Vietnam at 6th place. Notably, Japanese investment in India was double of that in Vietnam in 2019 and it  quadrupled within three years – from US$1.6 billion in 2017 to US$5.1 billion in 2019. Against this, Japanese investment in Vietnam crawled to a marginal increase from US$2.0 billion in 2017 to US$2.5 billion in 2019.  The trend shows the tenet of the Japanese reliance on India’s potential.

Why is it then India was toppled by Vietnam in the NNA survey within two months of the JBIC survey. In popularity and reliability, JBIC is more pronounced since it has been conducting the survey for three decades.  What does it connote? Is the JBIC survey more reliable or the NNA survey should be trusted to determine Japanese future plan for alternatives to China? 

No doubt, Vietnam has many attractive features: cheap input costs, stable politics, increasingly liberalized trade and investment policies and its FTA with Japan and other countries.  But, it has limitations too. They are its high dependence on foreign inputs for production and exports, limited sectors for investment, retreat of globalization after COVID 19 and its much smaller population.  

A high dependence on foreign inputs limits the capacity expansion, embodies risks if the political relation rages into confrontation, retreat of globalization reduces import intensity in production and exports and   the small population limits the domestic demand. 

China is the main source for imports of foreign input in Vietnam. More than one third of Vietnam’s imports come from China. Given the overdependence on foreign inputs, its gross exports include more of Chinese intermediate goods than domestic products. Eventually, it raises  risks for sustainable growth in exports, in the event of any political upheaval. India is a case in point. India’s overdependence on Chinese component and parts  for mobile phone manufacturing caused a big headache for the Government of India. Even though it helped in building a new industry, the bitter political relation between the two countries in the wake of frequent border conflict forced Indian government to put barriers on imports from China.

Another weakness of Vietnam for overdependence on China is that its integration with other Asian countries. Its imports witnessed downturn from these nations with the increasing imports from China. In other words, Vietnam’s rise in GVC participation rests more on foreign inputs, predominated by China. So far so, it is conducive till the political relation is normal. But, China has lost its integrity as a good trade partner with its expansionism policy. After China defied Hague arbitration, which blamed China’s forceful assertiveness in South China Sea, the sovereignty of Vietnam is at stake.  

Vietnam has limited sectors to attract investment. The target industries are electronics, footwear and textile. This means firms looking for shifting from China will find to meet only a subset of their needs. This leverages more opportunities in India, which embraces multiple sectors for investment. From manufacturing of electronics, automobile and defence equipments to construction, embodying big investment in infrastructure, India can provide a larger scope for Japanese investment in India. 

Domestic demand is another important parameter, which edges out Vietnam. India’s population is more than ten times that of Vietnam. Eventually, when all’s said and done, investors in Vietnam have to reap the benefit through exports, unlike in India where domestic demand become the determinant for sales. Many suggested Vietnam is an alternative to  China for supply chain. But, with the retreat of globalization in the wake of outbreak of COVID 19, situation ignited supply chain risk with the disruption in production in the world. It nudged countries to have a second thought on import dependence in GVC model and turn inward for development of domestic supply chain. In fact, since 2011 global import intensity to production witnessed a downturn, according to OECD. Reasons   were trade tensions, protectionism and uncertainty in trade policies. 

Locked into the quagmire of retreat of globalization and rise in protectionism, which will be detrimental to GVC  by export base economy, it warrants for a greater risk for investment in export base economy than in  India. India’s new initiative in Make in India is to establish a strong domestic supply chain, focusing on MSME (Micro, Medium and Small entrepreneurs), with abundant financial support.

Subrata Majumder

Subrata Majumder

Subrata Majumder is an adviser to Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), New Delhi, and the author of “Exporting to Japan,” as well as various articles in Indian media, including Business Line, Echo of India, Indian Press Agency, and foreign media, such as Asia Times online and Eurasia Review .

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