On February 24, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating that federal agencies conduct a 100-day review of critically important supply chains, as the COVID-19 pandemic has raised focus on issues regarding access to certain products and materials generally sourced from abroad (and particularly those from China). The review will focus specifically on four items, some of which have faced supply chain problems even before the pandemic:
- Semiconductors: Access to these chips, which are used for multiple purposes in motor vehicles and also are essential components of iPhones, personal computers, smart TVs, gaming systems, and more, increasingly became a problem during the pandemic. As remote working became more commonplace, demand for these chips increased greatly to accommodate the need for more personal computers and laptops. Additionally, trade restrictions placed on imports from China also caused difficulties, as many of China’s leading chip manufacturers had export restrictions placed on them by the United States. Additionally, some of these companies claim plans to expand manufacturing to the United States have been hindered by national security concerns raised by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), due in part to the possible military applications of these products. The US-based Semiconductor Industry Association claims that the US’s share of global semiconductor manufacturing has fallen from 37% in 1990 to 12% today, and US manufacturers are pushing the White House to work with Congress to provide investment that they claim will support research and design operations and to increase domestic semiconductor production.
- Pharmaceuticals: Shortages in certain drugs during the pandemic has also prompted a deeper examination into the pharmaceutical supply chain. A combination of increased demand for drugs to address the rising number of hospitalizations and the shutdown or slowdown of some international shipping ports led to key shortages. There are also concerns about being too reliant on China for key pharmaceutical ingredients, which has doubled over the last decade.
- Electric vehicle batteries: Global manufacturing of electric vehicle batteries is currently heavily concentrated in China, with Japan and South Korea ranking numbers two and three leading manufacturers, and the US back at number six, according to a report from S&P Global. With major US automobile manufacturers increasingly focusing on electric vehicles – including General Motors, which has announced that it intends to phase out all gas-powered vehicles by 2035 – reliable access to these batteries will be crucial in the coming years.
- Critical minerals: Rare earth minerals are used in a wide variety of applications, including airplanes, steel, light bulbs, wind turbines, and many more. Supply chain issues for these minerals long predate the COVID-19 pandemic, as China is the leading global producer of rare earth minerals. This problem of production being so heavily concentrated in a single country has been intensified by some of the Chinese government’s behavior in the past, including a brief restriction of rare earth exports to Japan in 2010 in response to a dispute in the East China Seas. These concerns have led to increased efforts from the rest of the world to ramp up rare earth mineral production, which has lowered China’s share over the last decade from around 98% down to 63%. In a continuation of efforts from the Obama and Trump administrations, Biden’s executive order will examine means of addressing weaknesses in the rare earth minerals supply chain. This will likely include both strengthening the US rare earth mineral industry and transitioning reliance on imports to countries with whom the US has friendlier reliance – primarily meaning a transition away from China.
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