The coronavirus has exposed our dangerous reliance on Chinese manufacturing

A man putting on a surgical mask. (Photo courtesy of Elora J. Martinez)

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

As the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States has soared to over 300,000, the Chinese government announced this past Tuesday that it would be tightening regulations on the export of coronavirus testing kits, after reports that several of these tests that went to countries proved defective.

The announcement was just one more development in an ongoing global competition between the U.S and China for crucial medical supplies. Once one of the world’s preeminent manufacturing hubs, U.S. production has taken a backseat to China. It’s not because we don’t have the money or the resources; rather, our country’s manufacturing jobs have drastically diminished over the past four decades. 

Decades of trade agreements have incentivized the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to China where labor is cheap and labor regulations are essentially nonexistent. According to Statista, China’s share of the global manufacturing output is a little under twice that of the United States. In the 12 years following China’s 2001 entrance into the World Trade Organization, nearly 2.4 million manufacturing jobs in the United States had been lost to trade deficits with the nation. 

It is time for the U.S. government to acknowledge the daunting reality that our dependence on Chinese manufacturing is not only hurting us economically, but that it is also a massive national security threat. 

In order to stop our helpless overreliance on Chinese exports, the U.S. government should enact the Defense Production Act to mandate that all future production of life-saving medical equipment and pharmaceutical drugs must be done domestically. Additionally, leadership in Washington should construct aggressive trade agreements and tax policies that encourage companies to manufacture their products here in the United States. 

We often associate the negative impacts of outsourcing and trade deficits with economic impacts. However, the reality is the national security consequences of allowing China to control the global supply chain are even more dire. A Commerce Department study found that upward of 95 percent of antibiotics in the U.S. are produced in China.  That means that a potential bacterial pandemic in the future could leave the U.S. entirely dependent on the Chinese government to save American lives. 

These concerns are not just hypothetical. Just a few weeks ago, The New York Times reported that China was “hoarding” N95 medical masks even as the Chinese government reported that their COVID-19 infection levels were under control. And now, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday that it is advising all Americans to wear masks to protect themselves from contracting COVID-19, Americans are being forced to make their own homemade masks because the U.S. supply of masks is so low.

While the rapid transition toward the manufacturing of products in China has led to cheaper goods like TVs, toys and even medical equipment like ventilators and X-ray machines, it has left our country extremely vulnerable. 

Our trade relationship with China has its benefits, but we must ensure that vital medical equipment is made here in the United States. We can’t gamble the health of our citizens by trusting an autocratic government to supply our country with essential medical equipment.

David Gordon is a sophomore government and politics and operations management and business analytics major. He can be reached at dgordon9@terpmail.umd.edu.

 

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