When is a Chain NOT a Chain? Does China's Dominance in Critical Supply Chains Strengthen or Weaken the Global Economy?

Green technology from China drives innovation and sustainability. But does reliance on one nation's expertise create risk and increase the need for international cooperation in a time of geopolitical tensions?

By Gilberto García-Vazquez

Critical Supply Chains (CSC) form a vast web that connects essential products, from energy to strategic materials, computer chips, health care, to downstream manufacturers and consumers. This article explores how China's vast scale accelerates global production. It also increases the scale of industrial weakness due to a concentration of power.

Supply Chains: The Lifeblood of the Global Economy

Supply chains are the vital arteries of economic activity that sustain the flow of goods and services. Critical supply chains (CSC) stand out by enabling the life-sustaining components of healthy, secure, and energy-rich communities. CSC are the infrastructure behind public health, energy, and communications for an entire planet. CSC are the most crucial source of the advanced semiconductors powering the AI revolution.

The COVID-19 pandemic unmasked extensive vulnerabilities in the CSC network as global shortages disrupted lives and economies. Those weaknesses might have been anticipated, but other global events — increasingly severe weather, devastating wildfires, and geopolitical conflicts — underscore the urgent need for more secure and resilient critical supply chains.

Critical Supply Chains Examined: Moving away from "Autopilot."

In February 2021, the Biden administration launched a comprehensive review of critical supply chains that had mainly been unmonitored in some cases for decades. As a result, the Department of Commerce produced a list of 2,409 products divided into four sectors: Critical Minerals and Materials, Energy, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), and Public Health. Each sector has subcategories, like Wind and Electric Grid within Energy. This is the first real roadmap for charting the functioning and upgrades of these supply chains. You might say the CSCs finally got their first global "MRI."

In 2021, the total trade value of CSC was close to $3.5 trillion, exported from 145 countries. The sectors include Public Health ($2.02 trillion), Energy ($1.3 trillion), Critical Minerals and Materials ($132 billion), and ICT ($43 billion).

Critical Supply Chains by Sector

China's Central Role: The Engine and Transmission of the CSCs

China's role in this global network is pivotal. In three of the four critical supply chain sectors — Energy, Critical Minerals and Materials, and ICT — China is far and away the most influential player.

China's Influence Decoded: Some Useful Metrics

"Degree Centrality" measures the number of connections a node has within any given network. In global trade, this Degree Centrality represents the number of trading partners a country has for a specific sector, such as Energy or ICT. A higher degree of centrality implies a more significant influence within the network, i.e., more connections to other nodes (countries). This metric is particularly insightful when analyzing critical supply chains, as it reveals the key players that hold sway over essential products and technologies. By examining Degree Centrality, we can unravel the complexity of global trade dynamics and identify the dominant forces that shape and steer these critical networks. The following sections explore China's unmatched influence across all four critical sectors, demonstrating its central role in powering global connections.


Visualized as a network, the China Syndrome in CSC dynamics is easy to see.

Energy Sector: A Web of Power: China is the central hub, with diverse and widespread connections.

China emerges as the pivotal player in the Energy sector, connecting with 121 countries in imports and exports. With the highest Degree Centrality, China's influence towers over other key players like Germany (93), the United States (91), India (84), and Turkey (84). China's dominance in this sector isn't merely about sheer volume; it's about the diversity and spread of connections, making it a more robust and influential chain link. Whether in wind energy, carbon capture, or the electric grid, China's position in this network reflects its strategic importance in powering the world's transition to renewable energy. Any disruption to China's energy trade, either from external catastrophe or internal policies, would have widespread ripple effects, impacting multiple countries and the global energy supply.

China's Strategic Control in Critical Minerals and Materials: A Global Mining Hub: China leads, with Australia and Brazil trailing.

China's influence in the Critical Minerals and Materials sector is deeply entrenched. With a Degree Centrality of 113, China maintains trade connections with numerous countries, surpassing Australia and Brazil, two dominant players. China controls essential products like Cobalt ores and concentrates, accounting for 95% of global exports. This dominance over critical minerals lays the foundation for China's influence over various industries, from renewable energy to electronics, fortifying its position as a strategic leader.

Public Health Sector: An Influential Player: India dominates, but China remains significant.

Although India has the highest degree of centrality in the Public Health sector, with a measure of 124, China's influence remains significant. China's centrality measure 84 positions it as a vital link in the global trade of public health products. Other influential players include Germany (117), the United States (115), and France (112). From pharmaceutical ingredients to medical devices, China's reach extends to many countries, fostering dependencies and shaping global healthcare supply chains. Its role in producing and distributing essential medical goods underscores its importance in global health security.

ICT Sector: China's dominance peaks, surpassing other significant players.

China leads in the ICT sector, with a degree centrality of 122. It is the source of essential products such as semiconductors and telecommunications equipment. Following China, Taiwan, with a centrality degree of 116, the United States (115), and Germany also play pivotal roles in this sector. China's influence in the ICT sector extends beyond mere numbers; it's a hub for innovation and technological advancement. Its extensive connections and influence in the ICT sector position it as a driving force in the global digital landscape, shaping trends and setting standards.

Global Collaboration: A Climate Imperative

China's dominance in CSC presents both opportunity and potential pitfalls. While China's scale and specialization drive technological advancements, the potential for weaponizing these products could hamper global efforts to combat climate change.

China's Dominance: A Catalyst for Innovation and Energy Transition

China's supremacy in producing green technology, such as solar panels and wind turbines, has set the pace for global carbon emission reduction. This success comes from a blend of scale, specialization, and knowledge diffusion.

China's large-scale manufacturing has created specialized factories, enhancing efficiency and reducing costs. This mastery of system-wide efficiency has enabled the production of sophisticated products at competitive prices.

Relatedness, or the synergy between industries, has allowed China to adapt rapidly to technological changes. China's specialization has facilitated knowledge diffusion, where research and expertise flow among companies, fostering innovation.

In simple terms, China's ability to produce large quantities, connect different industries, manage complex processes, and share knowledge has made vital green technologies more available and affordable. By consolidating the supply chain, China has become a driving force in the global transition toward sustainability, unveiling a pathway for other nations to follow in the fight against climate change.

Response: Fostering Global Collaboration

  • Multi-Lateral Agreements: Engaging in trade agreements emphasizing collaboration could mitigate risks.
  • Climate-Focused Partnerships: Forming international partnerships to advance green technologies ensures uninterrupted progress.
  • Transparency and Trust-Building: Commerce facilitated with transparent mechanisms and understandable tariffs and fees prevents conflicts.
  • Resilience and Flexibility: Robust backup and "Plan B" strategies that increase strength and flexibility in CSC can help mitigate the impacts of potential disruptions.
Critical Supply Chain's Interconnected World

Balancing Act in a Complex World

China's influence over critical supply chains is a complex balancing act between innovation and vulnerability. Understanding the critical supply chain's Degree Centrality in a multifaceted and interconnected world helps anticipate the effects of China's dominance within these essential networks. Understanding China's central role as both a catalyst for progress and a potential source of disruption is critical to showing the way forward. Strategic collaboration, focused policy, and a global perspective that embraces China's role as a driving force rather than a hindrance is essential to preserve stability and growth. Recognizing this duality of potential and peril, innovation and fragility is the only way we can reliably navigate the complexities of a world reliant on China's expertise and connections.

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