2020 was a year of crisis. And while it is hard to find reason for optimism in its wake, there are several lessons to be learned from the tumult that can enable us to make better decisions going forward. One of the key lessons that should be borne in mind in 2021 is that geopolitics matters – especially to the tech industry.
While the foundational crisis of 2020 was the emergence of the COVID-19 virus, geopolitical tensions have undermined a cohesive global response, as China withheld information from the global community and the United States turned its back on the World Health Organization. Without the guiding hand of stable global leadership during the crisis, the economic recovery will take longer than need be as the virus lingers. Economies will function below 100% capacity, unemployment will remain high, supply chains will be disrupted, and profits for companies will be harmed. The pandemic was a challenge in itself – the geopolitical environment has made it worse. Tech firms have faced component shortages, supply chain disruption, and uncertainty as a result.
Geopolitics and the tech industry converged in several more direct ways throughout 2020. Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong complicated supply chains and transportation between Hong Kong and mainland China. Tensions between the US and China resulted in new trade restrictions on Chinese tech. And countries continued to wage disinformation campaigns online, undermining public trust in social media platforms and mobilizing policy responses. Technology firms must be aware of the unstable geopolitical ground on which they stand, lest it takes them by surprise in 2021.
There is reason to hope 2021 will be more stable than its predecessor – vaccine distribution promises to mitigate the effects of the virus and the Biden administration will be a more reliable global partner than the Trump administration. But several geopolitical issues have the potential to upend the tech industry in 2021. Near the beginning of each year, think tanks like the Council of Foreign Relations publish their thoughts on the conflicts that have the potential to escalate during the year. Rated as high impact and high likelihood are heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. As North Korea continues developing its nuclear arsenal and expanding its ballistic missile capabilities, the opportunity for missteps and escalation involving South Korea, Japan, and the United States is present. Any change in the status quo on the Korean Peninsula could disrupt production from tech giants like Samsung, sending ripples through tech supply chains. Experts also warn that a crisis involving China, Taiwan, and the United States is moderately likely and high impact. If tensions escalate, new trade barriers could be introduced, further disrupting the global supply of chips.
These possible crises also point toward a problem recognized during the virus – overdependence on concentrated suppliers. Any disruption in Korea or Taiwan would have an outsized influence on the tech industry at large. Heavy reliance on production from two nations at the center of unstable geopolitical situations seems unwise. It will seem even more so should a crisis like experts warn of occur. One solution would be further diversification. Tech firms should watch these situations closely in 2021, with the current chip shortage serving as a taste of what could come from a crisis in Taiwan or on the Korean Peninsula.