Though trade tensions might be the immediate catalyst behind Apple's (AAPL) - Get Report reported efforts to explore moving a meaningful portion of iPhone production out of China, they're probably not the only factor at play.
On Wednesday, Japan's Nikkei reported Apple has "asked its major suppliers to evaluate the cost implications of shifting 15% to 30% of their production capacity from China to Southeast Asia." It adds that in addition to the Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, Apple is eyeing India and Mexico as places it could shift some manufacturing to, and that India and Vietnam "are among the favorites for smartphone diversification."
Along similar lines, The Wall Street Journal reports that Apple is "looking into the feasibility of shifting up to around a third of the production for some devices" outside of China, with Southeast Asia a place under consideration. It cautions that "no decision has been made on such a move."
Last week, Foxconn, long the contract manufacturer responsible for the biggest share of iPhone production, said that it could produce all of the iPhones sold in the U.S. in places other than China if necessary. Foxconn exec Young Liu noted that 25% of his firm's manufacturing capacity resides outside of China.
Apple already relies on India to handle a small percentage of iPhone production, via Foxconn and fellow contract manufacturer Wistron. However, the lion's share of iPhone production, not to mention much of the production of other Apple products, still takes place in China.
From the looks of things, Apple's openness to lowering its Chinese manufacturing exposure doesn't simply stem from wanting to avoid any U.S. import tariffs that might be imposed in the near-term, but from more long-term, strategic considerations. Sources tell the Nikkei that Apple will push ahead with attempts to diversify its manufacturing locations even if the current trade dispute between the U.S. and China is resolved, and that Apple "has decided the risks of relying so heavily on manufacturing in China, as it has done for decades, are too great and even rising."
And as one source talking with the Nikkei suggests, other economic and demographic factors, such as China's wage growth and aging workforce, might also be on Apple's mind. It's worth noting here that both India and Vietnam, the places said to be among the top candidates for shifting iPhone production, have lower factory wages than China.
Nonetheless, at a time when Apple sells over 200 million iPhones per year and its contract manufacturers employ hundreds of thousands of workers to help produce iPhones during peak months, shifting a large percentage of Apple hardware manufacturing to other countries is bound to take time. Making the shift isn't simply a matter of building factories and hiring and training assembly line workers in other countries, but -- as a 2012 New York Times report about Apple's Chinese manufacturing dependence drives home -- replicating a host of other things China can provide. Among these things: A large base of skilled engineers and technical workers; a host of component manufacturing facilities that complement iPhone manufacturing plants; and the ability to both rapidly hire new workers during peak months and dismiss those workers when the peak season is over.
There's also the matter of the extensive support that Apple's contract manufacturers have received in China both from Beijing and from local governments, via things like infrastructure investments, subsidies and tax breaks. And with Apple having received nearly a fifth of its revenue in fiscal 2018 from the "Greater China" region, the company has to be sensitive to potential retaliation from Beijing if it abruptly moves to pare back its Chinese manufacturing efforts.
Still, given the long-term political and economic risks of continuing to rely so heavily on China's manufacturing plants and supply chain, it's hard to blame Apple for exploring ways to hedge its manufacturing commitments.