(Hanoi, Vietnam) “Ninh, wake up, it’s our turn soon. »
Bundled up in their coats, Phun Thi Thuy and Ninh Thi Mai, two young peasant women from Lai Chau province in northern Vietnam, have been waiting since dawn in front of the recruitment center in the Van Trung industrial park, north of Hanoi. In the queue, behind them, a hundred other young people are waiting in the morning mist, resumes in hand.
“We traveled 300 kilometers by scooter to come and look for work. The region is in the midst of an economic boom,” says Phun.
A few rows behind, Nguyen, 22, confirms the momentum. “I worked on an assembly line of smartwatches and wireless headphones from Apple a few months ago. They are constantly opening up new production lines. »
Five minutes later, the small group disappears under a white marquee. An army of recruiters awaits him there. Overlooking the whole, a gigantic sign sits on the facade of an office tower of Foxconn, the most famous of the Apple brand’s subcontractors. “Let’s hire 10,000 employees. Good working environment, promotion opportunities. »
The company is not the only one to hire with a vengeance. Its competitor LuxShare, located not far from there, gathered several hundred new recruits that morning in the inner courtyard of its factory, more than a kilometer long. On the other side of the road, a South Korean electronics manufacturer is looking for 15,000 workers to fill its new mega-factory. Inventec, another nearby Apple contractor, announced in March that it would create 25,000 jobs by 2024.
And similar scenes are repeated all around Hanoi. Once popular with tourists, the famous Vietnamese rice fields are changing visibly. The few remaining peasants, looking a little confused, now cultivate their rice in a setting of factories, highways and a forest of high-voltage lines.
“Vietnam has recently seen a dramatic increase in foreign investment. At first, it was due to rising wages in China, which pushed the textile industry to countries with cheaper labor. The trade war between Beijing and Washington that began in 2018 under the Trump era and then Beijing’s erratic handling of COVID-19 then spread the trend to other industrial sectors. China is less and less seen as a reliable trading partner,” says David Dapice, an economist at Harvard University and a specialist in Southeast Asia.
A shared observation Koens Soenens, commercial director of Deep C, a sprawling industrial park located not far from the mythical Ha Long Bay.
“Their subcontractors who put their luggage in Vietnam tell us that they have received very clear instructions: they must diversify geographically,” he explains from his offices in Hai Phong, the large port city in the north of the country.
Outside the offices, a building several hundred meters long stands out in the middle of a wasteland. Pegatron, a major contractor for Microsoft, Apple and Tesla, has just inaugurated a half-billion-dollar US production site. Across the mouth of the River Cam, the cranes of a new deep-water port pierce thick rain clouds. Thanks to these steel monsters, container ships can now ship their goods directly to Europe and America without stopping in Singapore.
On the horizon, a huge viaduct runs towards the Chinese border, located less than two hours away. “The Vietnamese state has significantly improved infrastructure to attract industrialists located in southern China. And it works: the number of industrial jobs has increased by almost 50% between 2014 and 2021”, calculates David Dapice. Supported by this influx of capital, Vietnam experienced in 2022 the fastest growth on the Asian continent. It now remains to be seen whether the country will be able to keep up such a pace.
Part of the answer lies in downtown Hanoi. On the first floor of an ageless building in the Faculty of Science and Technology, 22-year-old student Nguyen Van Cong ponders his graduation project: a strange automaton on rails.
“It is an industrial robot capable of modeling the shape of an object in three dimensions and then painting it. I am specialized in industrial automation and I was recently recruited by Samsung to optimize the production lines of smartphones. Almost all my class was recruited by the company this way,” he says proudly, his eyes sparkling behind thin dark glasses.
At the other end of the room, his comrade Hieu Bui is working on making an integrated circuit to control a series of electric batteries. He too will soon join a major electronics manufacturer. Like the two friends, more than 250,000 students graduate from Vietnamese universities every year. That’s double 20 years ago, but 30 times less than in the Middle Kingdom.
Is the industrial decoupling between Beijing and the West, notably initiated by the United States, condemned by demography?
“Some sectors will certainly relocate part of their production to more geopolitically neutral skies, but we remain far from being able to simultaneously manufacture our medicines, our toys and our industrial machinery elsewhere than in China. »
Visibly aware of these limits, European leaders are still trying to spare the Middle Kingdom. The day before his first visit to Beijing last November, Olaf Scholz said, “We don’t want to decouple” from China.
A message that the director of Volkswagen, present in the luggage of the German Chancellor, could not but approve: like many German industrial groups, the car manufacturer makes almost half of its profit in China.
At the beginning of April, it was the turn of the French president to brush Beijing in the direction of the hair by declaring that he did not want to “enter into a block-to-block logic” between the United States and China and by praising his project “to European ‘strategic autonomy’.
If his declarations earned him a volley of green wood from Western diplomats, they paid off commercially. During the presidential visit, Airbus notably announced the doubling of its production capacity on Chinese soil. Failing to remain the factory of America, China therefore seems to be able to continue to count on its European customers.
While many Western companies have little alternative to China, others are, on the contrary, determined to jump ship as quickly as possible. The semiconductor sector, small high-tech chips irrigating all modern electronics, is one of them.
Invented in the 1950s, these components are the “brain” of everything connected, from smart phones to ballistic missiles. “Semiconductors are what we call a dual-use technology, that is to say that they are used to make both military objects and civilian objects,” explains Sarah Kreps, director of the research center in Technology Policy from Cornell University, USA. The country that has the most advanced semiconductors also secures a considerable military lead. This is why the United States is now trying to slow down China’s progress in this area. »
This attempt focuses in particular on one of the hotspots of Sino-American tensions: Taiwan. Half a century after betting on the production of semiconductors, the small island is today at the head of a world-class industrial flagship, the TSMC company. Producing nearly 90% of the world’s high-tech chips, its factories are dubbed the “silicon shield” of Taiwan. Because China, whose semiconductor manufacturers are less advanced than those on the other side of the strait, must still import from Taiwan two-thirds of the advanced chips consumed by its manufacturing industry. If the Middle Kingdom launched its troops today to attack Taipei, it would therefore shoot itself in the foot.
And the United States is determined to let the situation continue. Last October, Washington decreed severe restrictions on the export of semiconductors containing American technology to China. Any company in the semiconductor industry, anywhere in the world, now has to get Uncle Sam to sell its products to a Chinese company. A few months later, the Netherlands and Japan, two other heavyweights in the sector, followed America’s lead by announcing their own restrictions. TSMC and other manufacturers, which have factories in China for the manufacture of medium-tech chips, are therefore threatened with having to leave the country soon.
Faced with this escalation, semiconductor manufacturers are looking for other options. Vietnam is, again, an attractive option for the production of medium-tech chips. In the Hanoi region, we are therefore logically witnessing the proliferation of semiconductor factories. Samsung invests 3 billion US dollars. California-based Intel followed suit in February, announcing a check for over $1 billion. Not far from Hanoi airport, a forest of cranes is busy completing the new factory of the American Amkor, another giant in the sector. From running shoes to microchips: Made in Vietnam is definitely experiencing a real revolution.