Rags to Riches: Vietnam’s Growing Electronics Industry

Originally posted on SEMI Blog

By Stuart Schaag

If you look at your clothes or shoes, there is a growing chance you will see the words Made in Vietnam printed on the tag. Since the United States lifted its trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994, the country has become the second largest exporter of apparel and shoes to the U.S. What may be less evident is the source of that new electronic gadget you received for Christmas, with its numerous parts, chips, and intricate supply chain.

While light manufacturing has dominated Vietnam’s economic growth since the Đổi Mới economic reforms implemented in the 1980s, over the last decade the country has been repositioning itself to become a dominant player in the global microelectronics industry, a trend that has gained momentum in the wake of the U.S.-China trade war. In 2019, Vietnam ranked as the fourth largest exporter of electrical goods and components to the U.S. With exports doubling over the last four years and now exceeding $19 billion, surpassing Taiwan, Japan, and Korea (based on goods exported under chapter 85 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule). Vietnam’s global electronics industry now accounts for about 40% of its exports, and the country seems to be just getting started.

Early Entrants

Though Vietnam owes its growing success in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) in the semiconductor and microelectronics industries to the advent of China plus one – the business strategy to diversify business investments geographically – it was the few early entrants that gambled on this emerging market a decade ago that put Vietnam on the global stage.

Of these early players, no other firm comes close to having the impact that Samsung has. It’s initial $670 million mobile phone manufacturing plant in the northern province of Bac Ninh in 2008 grew to a country-wide investment of $17.3 billion within a decade. Samsung is now Vietnam’s largest FDI contributor and accounts for more than 25 percent of its exports. Because of Samsung, Vietnam has become the second largest exporter of smartphones in the world.

Around the same time, Intel opened its $1 billion semiconductor assembly and testing facility in Ho Chi Minh City, putting Vietnam firmly on the global technology map. More investors, like LG, Panasonic and Foxconn soon followed. Within a few years of these initial investments the industry was taking notice, illustrated by SEMI’s role in co-organizing the Vietnam Semiconductor Strategy Summits in 2013 and 2014. With SEMI SEA’s increased efforts to promote Vietnam as an important ecosystem in the electronics supply chain, more will be done to positively influence the growth and prosperity of its member companies in Vietnam.

These early investors found Vietnam attractive for several reasons. Key among these are the country’s low wage rates combined with its favorable demographic structure – what the UN refers to as the golden population structure, which provides “Vietnam with a unique socio-economic development opportunity.” Companies are also attracted to the growing number of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) that Vietnam belongs to, including the ASEAN Free Trade Area, CPTPP, the EU-Vietnam FTA, and, most recently, RCEP. Though the U.S. has yet to ink a trade agreement, the Singapore AmCham’s annual regional survey has consistently identified Vietnam as the most attractive country in ASEAN for a potential bilateral FTA partner with the U.S.

Leveraging the Trade War

If the plus one strategy was the catalyst that started this wave of electronics manufacturing in Vietnam, then the U.S.-China trade war was the enzyme that supercharged it. A common quip in Southeast Asia is that the U.S.-China trade war is over and Vietnam is the winner, and this is apparent in both trade and investment trends. According to the Asia Development Bank (ADB), the riff between the U.S. and China has caused a redirection in trade, as U.S. imports from the PRC fell by 12% in the first six months of 2019 while U.S. imports from Vietnam increased by 33%, with electronics and machinery accounting for the bulk of this jump. The ADB further reported that in a prolonged and intensified trade conflict, the worse-case scenario would result in Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand being the biggest winners, “in that order.”

On the investment side, a March 2020 Gartner, Inc. survey of global supply chain leaders revealed that 33% had “moved sourcing and manufacturing activities out of China or plan to do so in the next two to three years.” While this survey did not mention specific winners, the ADB reported that “newly registered FDI in Vietnam from the PRC and Hong Kong rose by 200% year on year in the first seven months of 2019,” indicating the move of Chinese suppliers to Vietnam. Additionally, a review of recent press reports indicate firms like Apple, Nintendo and Dell are encouraging suppliers to move parts of their supply chains to Vietnam. These suppliers are complying, with Compal Electronics, GoerTek, HZO, Inventec, Luxshare Precision Industry, Pegatron, USI and Wistron all reportedly announcing plans for new investments in Vietnam.

Manufacturing Hubs

Within Vietnam, microelectronic facilities have concentrated in a few geographic hubs. In the south, the Saigon High Tech Park in Ho Chi Minh City attracted early entrants Intel and Samsung, with firms like Nidec and Jabil soon following. The largest investment capital, however, developed in the northern provinces that ring Hanoi. Bắc Ninh, an hour’s drive from Hanoi, was the site of Samsung’s first investment and has since attracted Foxconn and Canon. More recently, firms have been drawn to the port city of Hải Phòng, the country’s third largest city, which is already home to Samsung and LG. The city’s close proximity to other manufacturing clusters, its new deep-water port, and its expressway that provides a 12-hour trucking route to China’s electronics epicenter in Shenzhen are helping make the city Vietnam’s new high-tech production center.

In 2019, LG Electronics moved its entire smartphone production line from South Korea to Hải Phòng, and in 2020 Pegatron reportedly chose the city for its $1 billion investment plan. Local phone manufacturer VinSmart is also producing the country’s first 5G smartphones in Hải Phòng. In November, USI, a subsidiary of Taiwan-based ASE Holding, broke ground on its first production base in Southeast Asia, a $200 million phase-one investment in the production and assembly of chips for wearable electronic devices.

USI’s investment, which is moving into the internationally managed DEEP C Industrial Zones in Hải Phòng, is “intended to move us closer to our overseas customers and accommodate their ever-increasing demand,” according to Mr. Kuei Chun Chi, the firm’s Manufacturing Service Director. “North Vietnam, with its strategic geographical position and an extended infrastructure in place, offers USI an optimal way to facilitate fast and flexible response to customers’ orders.”

Though the Covid-19 pandemic has dampened the pace of new investments in Vietnam’s microelectronics industry, it has also amplified the country’s attractiveness to investors. Vietnam was successful in containing the outbreak through aggressive quarantine and contact tracing measures, and as a result its economy has the brightest outlook in the region. The ADB forecasts the country will be one of the fastest-growing economies in SEA in 2021, with GDP estimated at 6.8%. The Ministry of Industry and Trade is also reporting that several of the world’s largest technology corporations plan to shift their production chains to Vietnam post-Covid-19, an indication that technology firms will accelerate relocation plans in 2021. Vietnam’s successful response to the pandemic, combined with its strategic location, low wage rates and foreign trade agreements, will ensure that the region continues to benefit from the shift in supply chains in Asia, making it the new destination for electronics manufacturing.

About the Author

Stuart Schaag is Principal at E-Ward Trade Consulting LLC, which assists firms that are expanding their presence in the global marketplace by creating strategies combining market analysis, business development, commercial diplomacy, and relationship building. He previously spent 25 years in various domestic and overseas positions in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration. Stuart served as the Commercial Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi from 2014-2018 and resided in Vietnam until 2020.