Industrial Policy’ Is Back: The West Dusts Off Old Idea to Counter China

An approach long criticised as inefficient is being adopted by the U.S. to fund sectors such as semiconductors.

By guest author Greg Ip from the Wall Street Journal

The U.S. and its allies have long pressed China to stop helping favored industries with subsidies, government preferences and other interventions.

Now they are beginning to copy it. Last month, the U.S. Senate voted for direct industry subsidies with little precedent: USD 52 billion for new semiconductor fabrication plants, called “fabs.”

Other regions have done the same. The European Union has committed to nearly doubling its share of global semiconductor manufacturing capacity, to 20 %. South Korea approved up to USD 65 billion in support for semiconductors, and Japan promised to match other countries’ semiconductor aid while planning to turn Japan into an Asian data centre hub.

Chip-manufacturing subsidies are the most prominent of a range of interventions Western governments are rushing out to promote industries they deem strategic, from electric-car batteries to pharmaceuticals. Such interventions have increased sharply in both the U.S. and Europe in the past decade, according to Global Trade Alert, a trade-monitoring group.

Collectively, this represents an embrace of “industrial policy,” the idea that governments should direct resources to industries critical to the national interest rather than leaving things to the market.

Advocates say the U.S. has employed industrial policy in some form ever since its first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, used tariffs to nurture manufacturing. Critics call it “picking winners” in ways better left to capital markets, and point to money wasted on past efforts such as supersonic airliners and fast breeder nuclear reactors.

Support now is broadening, straddling the Trump and Biden administrations, driven by pandemic-driven disruptions to supply chains and the rise of China. American officials once assumed that as China’s government matured, the state’s role in the economy would shrink. Now they say the U.S. has to embrace government intervention or watch China dominate vital industries.

“I’ve been impressed with the Chinese model,” said Mark Warner, a former venture capitalist and Virginia governor who as a Democratic senator sponsored the semiconductor legislation. The Chinese state ensures that Chinese, not foreign, companies become the dominant players in its domestic market, effectively guaranteeing them a big share of the world’s market, he said.

“It’s hard to see how a company in America or any normal, traditional market-based economy can compete against that kind of juggernaut and win,” Mr. Warner said.

The biggest hurdle with industrial policy is governments’ inability to predict technological trends, and the West’s new industrial-policy push might prove wasteful and ineffective, which some analysts say is already true of China’s.

All captions courtesy by the Wall Street Journal

“It would be a huge mistake for the U.S. to try and match Chinese government spending,” said  Scott Kennedy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. “So much of it is thrown down bottomless pits, leading to over-investment, lower profits, slower innovation and more debt.”

Industrial policy was once commonplace among market-based democracies. Western European governments held controlling stakes in numerous companies. Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry, or MITI, influenced almost every major industry decision.

They pulled back over recent decades. European governments privatized state-owned enterprises, while the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, imposed strict limits on state aid. MITI’s influence shrank in the 1990s in the face of deregulation and the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy. The creation of the World Trade Organization in the mid-1990s made it harder for governments to protect “national champion” companies.

China, though, never retreated. Even after it introduced market reforms in 1979 and accelerated them after 1992, the state continued to guide economic development through ownership of enterprises and control over credit, government purchases, tax preferences, land and foreign investment. Since 2006 the ruling Communist Party has put priority on catching up to the West technologically.

Previously called “Made in China 2025,” this endeavor was renamed “dual circulation” last year. In a speech, President Xi Jinping said the goal was to eliminate China’s dependence on other countries while increasing their dependence on China. It could then threaten to cut off foreign customers to deter aggression, he said.

China is responding in part to the Trump administration’s barring U.S. companies from supplying critical technologies to Chinese companies such as telecom manufacturer Huawei Technologies. The prospect of China’s doing the same—made more urgent by many countries’ restrictions on exports of medical supplies during the pandemic—has led some skeptics to swallow their reservations about industrial policy.

Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who co-sponsored the semiconductor legislation with Mr. Warner, said, “What we’re doing is industrial policy unlike anything people with my free-market, conservative background would ordinarily be comfortable with. Our driving impetus is what China is doing and [the security of] the supply chain.”

Current industrial-support efforts are narrower than in the past. Japanese officials say government intervention should be the exception, focusing on “chokepoint” sectors critical to others. A June document from its Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the successor to MITI, described semiconductors as the “brain of industry,” as essential as energy and food, and as meriting an exception. It called for securing “Japan’s strategic indispensability and autonomy in the midst of confrontation between U.S. and China over technological sovereignty.”

In 2014, the EU said exceptions could be made for “important projects of common European interest” that have widely shared benefits and don’t distort competition. One is the European Battery Alliance, a public-private consortium with more than 600 members that is developing batteries for electric vehicles and power grids.

Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič said he pitched the plan as an “ Airbus for batteries,” comparing it to Europe’s successful launch of a competitor to Boeing. “In today’s electric vehicle, the battery and the software represent more than half the value of the car,” he said. “You cannot retain your competitive position as proud producers of the best cars in the world if you simply do not master and manufacture the most significant part of the electric vehicle.”

In U.S. there has long been broad support for government funding of basic research and development. One result is that the U.S. still leads in inventing and designing new technology, even though the manufacture of the resulting products moved abroad, mostly to East Asia.

The U.S. led in the development of photovoltaic solar technology, but China dominates the manufacture of their panels. U.S. companies account for half of world semiconductor-design revenue, but U.S. factories make just 12% of semiconductors.

Advocates of industrial policy in Congress and the White House are no longer satisfied simply promoting innovation; they want the resulting products to be made in the U.S. They have multiple goals: to secure U.S. supply, create jobs and ensure that the resulting intellectual property stays in the U.S. rather than being transferred to Chinese competitors via outsourcing.

Last month, the White House proposed a breadth of tools to boost domestic production in four sectors deemed vital to the supply chain: semiconductors, batteries, specialized minerals and pharmaceutical ingredients.

It proposed using several existing federal loan, tax-credit and R&D programs to support electric-vehicle battery manufacturing. To reduce dependence on foreign supplies of neodymium magnets, important components of motors and other devices, it suggested imposing tariffs under the same 1962 national-security law that former President Donald Trump used to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.

The administration also announced plans for a public-private consortium to revive domestic production of 50 to 100 critical drugs, as well as plans for a domestic lithium-battery supply chain.

The return of industrial policy complicates life for businesses. The U.S.-China trade war had already led to tariffs and export controls. Now, industry officials say, decisions previously based on cost and proximity to customers, suppliers and the head office must also take into account political pressure to localize production.

Last year the Trump administration helped persuade Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. , the world’s largest chip foundry—that is, a company that makes chips designed by others—to build a fab in Arizona.

“We conveyed to TSMC the importance of securing the semiconductor supply chain, and that the U.S. government as well as their U.S. customers wanted them manufacturing here,” said Keith Krach, who led the negotiations as a State Department undersecretary at the time. “They knew it would strengthen Taiwan-U.S. relations and that it was strategic not just to our national security but also to Taiwan’s.”

TSMC said the Arizona fab is “of critical, strategic importance to a vibrant and competitive U.S. semiconductor ecosystem.”

The arrangement also needed to make economic sense, Mr. Krach said, so obtaining congressional authorization for incentives to TSMC was a key reason the Trump administration pushed for the legislation providing aid to the chip industry. The House has yet to take up the Senate-passed bill.

Separately, when Intel was seeking to sell a memory chip fab in Dalian, China, last year, Mr. Krach said, he and other U.S. officials told the company the U.S. would block a sale to a Chinese company. Intel sold the plant to South Korea’s SK Hynix, a major memory-chip manufacturer.

“While a Chinese buyer likely would have paid more, Intel acted as a responsible corporate citizen,” Mr. Krach said. Intel and SK Hynix both declined to comment.

Multinational companies already locate facilities around the world to be closer to customers, avoid trade barriers and curry local favor. SK Innovation, which like SK Hynix is a unit of South Korean conglomerate SK Holdings, makes batteries for electric vehicles in Hungary, China and South Korea, all to serve manufacturers in those regions. In 2019 it broke ground on a plant in Georgia to supply batteries to Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG .

South Korean rival LG Chem accused SK of making batteries with trade secrets stolen from LG. In February the U.S. International Trade Commission, an independent, quasi-judicial body, ruled in LG’s favor, barring SK from importing components necessary to start production in the U.S. state.

In a presentation to U.S. officials, SK Innovation said the Biden administration should intervene or its priorities would be compromised, including securing supply chains for critical technologies. It said China was the leader in lithium-ion batteries and was targeting 80 % global market share in electric-vehicle batteries and motors.

“Chinese EV battery manufacturers are well positioned to fill the void…if SK’s Georgia facility is shuttered,” said the presentation, which The Wall Street Journal reviewed. White House officials helped broker a settlement between the companies in April, allowing the Georgia plant to open on schedule.

Explaining SK Innovation’s decision to put battery production in Georgia, a spokesman said, “Encouraging local production of electric vehicles has become a priority for nations around the world, including the U.S.” He cited President Joe Biden’s decision to replace the federal fleet with electric vehicles, of which more than half the parts must be U.S.-made.

The Georgia plant alone won’t establish an independent battery supply chain; that also requires access to lithium, cobalt and other essential minerals, plus the recycling of spent batteries. China refines 60 % of the world’s lithium and 72 % of its cobalt, according to last month’s White House supply chain report.

Efforts by the U.S. and its allies to build up industries that can challenge China face several obstacles to success. One is that China’s commitment to industrial policy is deeper and older.

Its support for favored industries is pervasive and opaque, and difficult to challenge as a violation of international trade rules. By restricting the export of raw aluminum, China ensures that aluminum manufacturers have a cheap supply of raw material, said Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a pro-free trade think tank.

Western governments are reluctant to take ownership of industrial companies, but doing that is central to China’s industrial policy. Not only are many of its largest companies state-owned, but Chinese governments at all levels have established 1741 industrial guidance funds—in effect, state-sponsored private equity—with plans to deploy USD 1.6 trillion, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, a research centre.

While often uncoordinated and duplicative, these holdings give Chinese authorities enormous sway over company decisions and blur the line between state and private ownership. State investors also tolerate losses for far longer than Western shareholders.

Government support from 2014 to 2018 was equal to as much as 30% or more of annual revenue for two of China’s two major semiconductor companies, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC) and Tsinghua Unigroup, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an association of mostly advanced economies. Other countries subsidize semiconductor fabs through cheap land and tax breaks, but only China provides so much aid in the form of this cheap equity, the OECD said.

Whether China’s spending is effective remains controversial. Chinese chip companies remain well behind leading Western competitors. Mr. Kennedy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated China has injected between USD 49 billion and USD 72 billion into state-owned aircraft maker Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) in a so-far-unsuccessful effort to make it a competitor to Airbus and Boeing.

Even if other countries spent as much as China, they would likely struggle to achieve truly independent supply chains because China dominates so many of the links. When semiconductor chips are fabricated in the U.S. they still must undergo assembly, packaging and testing, a low-margin business where China is the biggest player.

Often, politics rather than commercial potential determines who gets help. Federal regulations require oil refiners to blend biofuels such as corn-based ethanol with gasoline to benefit farmers even though experts question its environmental benefits. Mr. Biden wants federal support directed to economically depressed communities and colleges that cater to minorities, whereas high-tech companies gravitate toward elite universities and places where similar work is already being done.

In the 1980s the U.S. imposed restrictions on imports from Japan of dynamic random access memory (DRAM) chips to protect U.S. market share, but DRAM chips became a commodity business whipsawed by booms and busts. Production has almost entirely left the U.S.

Mr. Warner knows the lesson well. As governor of Virginia, he, like two predecessors, directed state aid to a memory-chip plant just outside Richmond operated by a spinoff of Germany’s Infineon Technologies AG . In 2009, amid a global glut driving down memory-chip prices, the spinoff entered bankruptcy protection and closed the facility, laying off more than 1000 employees.

Mr. Warner said U.S. semiconductor subsidies must be allocated through a clear, rigorous process without political interference. But “the truth is you could have a panel that makes exactly the right decisions, technology could leapfrog and, five years later, the valid choices made in 2021 could look pretty stupid,” he said.

Mr. Warner said the U.S. has little choice because semiconductor fabs are going to be built and without federal intervention they’ll go to China. “I was a venture capitalist before I was a politician,” Mr. Warner said. “This is the kind of bet America has to make.”