In 2011, then-President Barack Obama attended an intimate dinner in Silicon Valley. At one point, he turned to the man on his left. What would it take, Obama asked Steve Jobs, for Apple to manufacture its iPhones in the United States instead of China? Jobs was unequivocal: “Those jobs aren’t coming back.” Jobs’s prognostication has become almost an article of faith among policymakers and corporate leaders throughout the United States. Yet China’s recent weaponization of supply chains and information networks exposes the grave dangers of the American deindustrialization that Jobs accepted as inevitable.
Since March alone, China has threatened to withhold medical equipment from the United States and Europe during the coronavirus pandemic; launched the biggest cyberattack against Australia in the country’s history; hacked U.S. firms to acquire secrets related to the coronavirus vaccine; and engaged in massive disinformation campaigns on a global scale. China even hacked the Vatican. These incidents reflect the power China wields through its control of supply chains and information hardware. They show the peril of ceding control of vast swaths of the world’s manufacturing to a regime that builds at home, and exports abroad, a model of governance that is fundamentally in conflict with American values and democracies everywhere. And they pale in comparison to what China will have the capacity to do as its confrontation with the United States sharpens.
The question today is not whether America’s manufacturing jobs can return, but whether America can afford not to bring them back.