Economic aftershocks of Japan quake roil Asia

Economic aftershocks of the devastation in Japan are rolling through Asia. It is here, among Japan's neighbors, that the reverberations of the catastrophe are being felt hardest.

Automakers in Thailand are slowing production. South Korean electronics manufacturers face shortages of critical parts. Thousands of Japanese have canceled trips to Taiwan. Panic buying has driven up prices of Japanese cameras in China, while Indian policymakers brace for higher oil prices.

The 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami that laid waste to Japan's industrial northeast on March 11 and triggered an unfolding crisis at a crippled nuclear power plant has exacted a terrible human toll with estimates of more than 10,000 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. It might also undermine Japan — and China — as manufacturing bastions as the catastrophe gives global companies further reason to spread suppliers over more countries to avoid reliance on a handful of production powerhouses.

"Even before the Japan disaster, there was a sense that many multinationals had become too dependent on a single source of production," said Frederic Neumann, HBSC's co-head of Asian economics research. "The broad trend to diversify production will not just affect Japan, it will affect China. China's production has become very concentrated."

South Korea, a manufacturing force in its own right, has been among the first to shudder as Japanese suppliers grappled with damaged factories and power shortages.

SUV and luxury sedan maker Ssangyong Motor Co. is facing production constraints because of shortages of Japanese parts, said its chairman Pawan Goenka. "Most of the parts sourced from any given country are developed over time," he said. "It's not possible in most cases to switch sources. By the time you're able to switch sources the crisis will be over."

Samsung Electronics Co. and Hynix Semiconductor Inc. buy 50 to 60 percent of the wafers they use to make computer chips from Japan's Shin-Etsu Chemical Co., which shut two factories damaged in the quake. Operations at other plants have been affected by rolling blackouts, the Japanese company said on its website.

Samsung Heavy Industries Co. gets 30 to 40 percent of the large metal plates it uses for shipbuilding from Japan. "If the disaster in Japan lasts and affects our supplies, we would have to consider ordering more from our South Korean and Chinese suppliers," said public relations manager In-chun Hwang.

Profits at Taiwanese electronics firms will likely slump in the second quarter due to shortages of Japanese components, said Alex Huang, an analyst at Taipei's Mega Securities Corp.

In mainland China, businesses have already started looking for replacement markets for the some $100 billion of exports they ship to Japan annually.

Chongqing Kinglong Fine Strontium Chemical Co., in the southern megacity of Chongqing, sells more than 80 percent of the strontium carbonate it produces to Japan, where it is used to make LCD monitors. "We may have to expand our domestic market to deal with the impact," a company spokesperson told the Chongqing Times newspaper.

Many Chinese manufacturers that use imported components are still able to run on inventory, but companies that rely on high end Japanese electronics and auto parts are bracing for shortfalls and rising prices, said Wang Shaopu, director of the Center for Pan-Pacific Studies at Shanghai's Jiaotong University.

Though disruption to supply chains and production is being felt across Asia, most economists say the impact of the Japanese disaster on regional economic growth will not be severe. The quiet message behind that belief is that Japan, which lost its spot as the world's No. 2 economy to China last year, doesn't have as much clout as it used to.

"Japan is still important but it's a much smaller piece of the global economic pie and much less important to the global supply chain than it has been historically," said Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi.

Japan's contribution to Asia's growth has been near zero for the last five years, says Moody's. China accounts for over 20 percent of global growth, and U.S. consumers alone are about twice as important for global growth as Japan's entire economy, according to UBS.

Even in its mainstay electronics component manufacturing, Japan's power has waned. In 1990, Japanese companies were responsible for a third of global electronics components exports. By 2008, their share had halved, as producers in South Korea, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia picked up market share.

What companies are reluctant to discuss is how they could benefit from Japan's tragedy.

In Taiwan, shares of steel, plastic and chemical firms have all risen since March 11.

"Japanese steel and chemical output may be reduced by up to 40 percent after the quake and prices have already soared," Huang said. "Taiwanese firms will further benefit from Japan's reconstruction needs."

Potential beneficiaries in China are iron and steel producers and food producers, who could step up exports to Japan as fears mount of radiation contamination from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, he said. That, however, would exacerbate already rising food prices in China.

So far, speculators have been the clearest winners.

Shoppers in China stripped salt from supermarket shelves, panicked by the unlikely possibility that the salt supply would be contaminated by radioactive fallout or in the false belief that table salt protects against radiation illness.

Some then sold the salt in store parking lots for ten times the original price.


Kinetz reported from Mumbai, India. Associated Press writers Kay Seok in Seoul, South Korea and Annie Huang in Taipei, Taiwan and researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed.

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