Mexico vs. China on Manufacturing Risks

Manufacturing Risks in China vs. Mexico: A Comprehensive Analysis

When weighing where to manufacture your products, comparing risks between locations is crucial. China and Mexico both offer advantages, but a deeper analysis reveals clear differences. In this post, I delve into the risks associated with manufacturing in China and Mexico, two of the world’s most popular manufacturing destinations. I also explore why mitigating these risks can be more feasible in Mexico compared to China, all with the goal of  helping you make informed decisions when choosing a location for your manufacturing.

China Risks versus Mexico Risks

Manufacturing products overseas can provide tremendous advantages, including reduced labor costs, proximity to raw materials, and access to labor pools with specialized skills. However, these opportunities do not come without risk. China and Mexico have emerged as two of the most popular manufacturing destinations globally, but a deeper analysis reveals notable differences in the types of risks foreign companies face in each country. This article will dive into the key risks, unpack the nuances, and examine why mitigating certain inherent challenges in China remains difficult.

The Globalized Supply Chain and Its Risks

The globalized nature of our modern economy means that supply chains have become increasingly complex and interconnected. Though this interconnectivity offers efficiency and cost savings, it also poses significant risks. This section provides an analysis of supply chain disruptions.

Causes of Supply Chain Disruptions

  • Natural Disasters: Events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and floods can cause significant damage to manufacturing plants, transportation infrastructure, and distribution networks. For instance, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan disrupted global automotive and electronics supply chains, demonstrating the ripple effects of such events. And of course, there was COVID, which caused major supply chain disruptions around the world, but particularly for products from China.
  • Political Instability: Changes in government, trade wars, sanctions, and civil unrest can lead to disruptions. These changes can cause sudden shifts in trade relations, tariffs, and regulations, making it challenging for manufacturers to adapt quickly.
  • Economic Factors: Economic downturns, fluctuations in currency values, and changes in demand can also disrupt supply chains. An economic crisis in one country can lead to decreased consumer spending, impacting manufacturers and suppliers worldwide.
  • Technological Failures: Dependence on technology means that system outages, cyberattacks, and data breaches can halt operations. A notable example is the 2017 ransomware attack on Maersk, a shipping conglomerate, which led to significant disruptions in its global supply chain.
  • Labor Disruptions: Strikes, labor shortages, or changes in labor laws can halt or slow down production. Such disruptions can be especially problematic for industries dependent on specialized labor.

China’s Unique Supply Chain Challenges

Though the above points apply globally, China presents its own unique set of supply chain challenges:

  • Geographical Concentration: Many of China’s manufacturing hubs are concentrated in its coastal regions. Though this offers logistical advantages, it also means that disruptions in one area can have a cascading effect on the entire supply chain.
  • Dependence on Raw Materials: China relies heavily on importing raw materials. Any disruptions in these supply routes, whether due to geopolitical tensions or other factors, can have a significant impact.
  • Infrastructure Limitations: Despite significant advancements, certain areas of China still face infrastructural challenges. This can lead to bottlenecks, especially during peak manufacturing seasons.
  • Geopolitical Risks: Hardly a day goes by without China in some sort of tiff with a neighbor. If it’s not Taiwan, it’s the Philippines. If it’s not the Philippines, it’s Vietnam. If it’s not Vietnam, it’s India. Will any of these tiffs become something that causes supply chain stoppages?

Mitigating Supply Chain Risks

Effective management of supply chain risks requires a multifaceted approach:

  • Diversification: Just as in investment, diversifying suppliers and manufacturers across different regions can help insulate companies from localized disruptions.
  • Technology: Implementing advanced supply chain management systems can help in real-time tracking, predicting potential disruptions, and enabling quick pivots.
  • Relationship Building: Maintaining strong relationships with suppliers and other stakeholders can offer better insights into potential risks and faster response times during disruptions.
  • Insurance: Comprehensive insurance policies can help mitigate the financial impacts of supply chain disruptions.
  • Regular Audits: Continuously evaluating and auditing the supply chain for potential vulnerabilities can help in early detection and mitigation.

Though supply chain disruptions pose a significant risk to manufacturers globally, understanding these risks and proactively managing them can ensure smoother operations.

Unpacking the Risks of Manufacturing in China

Manufacturing in China poses an intricate web of risks spanning intellectual property (IP) theft, supply chain disruptions, data security, product quality control, rapidly evolving regulations, and cultural barriers for foreign companies. Let’s look at each in detail:

1. Intellectual Property (IP) Theft

China has a long track record of rampant IP infringement across industries. On paper, China has IP laws in place. However, enforcement of these laws is fragmented and inconsistent across different provinces. It is not uncommon for local competitors to reverse engineer products or hijack proprietary production methods, then rapidly introduce knock-off versions into the local market. See It’s Perfectly Legal for Your Chinese Manufacturer to Copy Your Products.

Legal recourse for IP theft is limited in China and Chinese courts often favor domestic companies. Differing cultural perspectives on the concept of intellectual property versus more collective ownership of knowledge and technology make full alignment with Western IP precedents complicated. Decentralized regional regulatory complexities also impede establishing watertight patent, trademark, and copyright protections across China markets.

2. Quality Control Issues

China’s manufacturing sector has rapidly evolved, often with a focus on high volume and low-cost production. Combined with relatively lax regulatory oversight compared to Western standards, this emphasis on efficiency has resulted in quality control practices that may fail to meet expectations. For companies manufacturing in China, this can lead to higher defect rates in products and an increased risk of recalls down the line due to quality concerns. Extensive supplier audits and production monitoring measures are essential.

3. Supply Chain Complexity

China’s enormous landmass means suppliers, vendors, and raw material sources can be spread across multiple provinces separated by vast distances. This geographic spread leads to increased transportation costs, longer lead times, and coordination challenges for manufacturers. Sourcing from a higher number of smaller suppliers also often necessitates extensive quality verification processes with regular supplier audits. Consistency issues are not uncommon.

4. Regulatory Uncertainty

Beijing’s centralized decision-making process for regulatory changes can have abrupt and significant consequences for foreign companies manufacturing in China. For instance, the Made in China 2025 policy initiative emphasized rapid growth across ten high-tech domestic industries like robotics, biopharma, and new materials. This directly led to many foreign technology firms re-evaluating their China strategies. While such sweeping changes aim to drive national growth, they leave limited lead time for foreign companies to adapt. Beijing’s high degree of centralized control over regulatory policy makes abrupt changes unavoidable at times. This offers limited lead time for foreign manufacturers to adapt operations.

5. Data Theft Threats

China’s evolving cybersecurity regulatory landscape is a source of concern, with policies mandating companies store data locally on approved Chinese servers, as well as granting government agencies expansive access privileges. This raises obvious red flags around trade secret or IP theft, especially when local joint venture partners are involved.

6. Geopolitical Tensions

Ongoing trade disputes and deterioration in diplomatic relations between China and several Western nations have thrown a wrench into global supply chains. For companies heavily invested in China operations, these tensions directly disrupt the flow of materials, products, and profits. And with China aiming to establish itself as a global technology leader, restrictions around emerging technologies pose added uncertainties. China’s deeply embedded position across global supply chains means any tensions with trade partners cause cascading effects well beyond the initial context. Individual foreign businesses have minimal control over these macro geopolitical events despite their operational impact.

Examining the Key Risks of Manufacturing Operations in Mexico

Now let’s explore the key risks associated with manufacturing in Mexico – a location growing in popularity as companies aim to de-risk from China.

1. IP Theft

Mexico too has its challenges with intellectual property. Although IP laws have been strengthened in recent years, enforcement remains inconsistent. Foreign companies must remain vigilant and take precautions to protect their IP assets. Based solely on what my law firm has seen, protecting your IP in Mexico is easier, cheaper, and more effective than in China.

2. Security Issues

While states like Guanajuato, Puebla, Monterrey, Querétaro, and Aguascalientes are considered relatively safe hubs for manufacturing, other regions of Mexico continue to grapple with high crime rates from organized gang activities. This variability necessitates careful evaluation of security risks based on the specific locale under consideration. Instances of theft, extortion, and violence around certain locations can disrupt operations, inflict financial losses, and negatively impact staff morale.

3. Regulatory Uncertainty

Frequent political changes and shifts in administration have led to ongoing policy uncertainty in Mexico. For example, NAFTA was replaced by the USMCA trade agreement in 2020, directly impacting automotive, electronics, and other manufacturers exporting to the U.S. Keeping continuously updated on regulatory changes is key to remaining compliant.

4. Infrastructure Gaps

Though Mexico possesses a solid transportation infrastructure and network of modern highways, bottlenecks can still occur especially surrounding railways and borders. Energy reliability issues in certain regions can also constrain manufacturing output. However, infrastructure is stronger near key hubs.

5. Workforce Challenges

The return of many maquiladoras and overall growth in advanced manufacturing has accelerated demand for skilled labor in Mexico. This makes retention difficult as workers job-hop for better opportunities. Investing in robust employee training and development programs is crucial.

6. Customs Delays

Meeting exacting documentation requirements and having seamless data exchange with customs brokers is vital for manufacturing in Mexico to prevent shipment delays at the border. Especially with Mexico serving as a key conduit for U.S. bound cargo, any bottlenecks or errors can have rapid ripple effects.

Why Mitigating Risks in Mexico May Be More Feasible

Many of the manufacturing risks arising in Mexico can be managed proactively through localized strategies:

  • Local Expertise. Tapping into on-the-ground expertise by partnering with local firms or consultants can provide valuable insights into regional challenges and tailor-made solutions.
  • Geographic Diversification. Diversifying across different geographic regions within Mexico distributes risk exposure and provides access to different labor skill sets. It also insulates operations from localized events.
  • Workforce Investment. Investing in employee skills training and implementing robust safety protocols helps improve workforce retention and productivity.
  • Supply Chain Redundancies. Building redundancies into the supply chain improves resilience to potential disruptions. Maintaining backup supplier options helps manage reliance on sole sources.
  • Staying Informed. Monitoring relevant regional news sources and engaging with industry trade associations provides visibility into upcoming policy changes and potential regulatory compliance gaps before they arise.

Why Mitigating Certain Inherent Risks in China Remains Difficult

Some of the foundational risks that foreign manufacturers face in China arise from factors that make mitigation inherently difficult.

Both China and Mexico offer compelling incentives like reduced costs and access to specialized labor that propel their manufacturing appeal globally. However, companies must carefully analyze the multifaceted risks involved – from IP issues to regulations, supply chain fragility, infrastructure gaps and cultural barriers. In Mexico, many risks can be managed through location decisions, partnerships, workforce training, and monitoring upcoming changes. But in China, intrinsic political, legal, and cultural factors make risk mitigation intrinsically more difficult in many scenarios. Deep due diligence, locally tailored strategies, and market agility are  critical in both countries, yet seem to be generally more effective in Mexico than in China.

Just by way of one example, it is impossible to eliminate the risk of your product from China getting stopped at a border for having been made with forced labor. There are plenty of things you can do to reduce your forced labor risks, but virtually nobody believes you can even come close to eliminating that risk.

Having worked extensively with international manufacturing companies for decades, I’ve witnessed firsthand the complexities and rewards of navigating overseas production. Though China offers undeniable cost advantages, the inherent risks associated with IP theft, cultural barriers, and geopolitics can be daunting. Mexico, on the other hand, presents a more manageable risk profile, with many challenges addressable through strategic planning and local partnerships.

Actionable Solutions

Throughout this post I’ve identified various risks associated with manufacturing in both China and Mexico. But knowledge is only half the battle. Here are some actionable steps you can take to mitigate these risks in both China and in Mexico, and just about everywhere else in the world as well:

  • Conduct thorough due diligence. Before setting up shop in either country, invest time in researching potential partners, suppliers, and the legal landscape. See Foreign Company Due Diligence Reports.
  • Embrace diversification. Diversify your supply chain across different regions within each country, and consider using multiple suppliers to reduce reliance on any single source.
  • Invest in local expertise. Partnering with local firms or consultants can provide invaluable insights into regional challenges and cultural nuances. They can help you navigate regulations and develop tailor-made solutions specific to your needs.
  • Prioritize workforce development. In both China and Mexico, a skilled workforce is crucial. Invest in training programs to improve employee skills and retention.

Stay informed. Regularly monitor local news sources and industry associations to stay updated on upcoming policy changes and potential regulatory hurdles. Proactive awareness is key to ensuring compliance.

Focus on SMEs

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) often face a distinct set of challenges when venturing into international manufacturing, challenges that differ markedly from those encountered by larger corporations.

SMEs typically operate with more limited resources, making the risks associated with global supply chains, such as disruptions, currency fluctuations, and regulatory changes, potentially more impactful. However, the evolving manufacturing landscapes in China and Mexico provide unique opportunities for SMEs willing to navigate these challenges.

In China, SMEs will find a vast network of suppliers and manufacturers, but they must be vigilant about product quality and intellectual property protection. In contrast, Mexico offers proximity advantages and increasingly robust intellectual property laws, but SMEs must build strong local partnerships and understand the cultural dynamics to succeed.

Trends and Strategies in the Evolving Supply Chain Landscape

In the broader context of global supply chains and international trade, the risks associated with manufacturing in China and Mexico are not isolated challenges but integral components of a complex global system. Recent trends and global events have prompted companies to reassess their supply chain strategies, with nearshoring emerging as a significant shift. Nearshoring, or moving manufacturing closer to the end consumer market, has gained traction as businesses seek to mitigate risks by shortening supply chains and reducing dependency on distant manufacturing hubs.

Nearshoring is particularly relevant as companies navigate the uncertainties of international trade tensions, tariffs, and the lingering effects of global disruptions such as the COVID-19 pandemic. For businesses operating in North America, Mexico’s proximity offers an attractive nearshoring option compared to China, allowing for more agile responses to market change,  and reducing transit times and costs.

Global events like the COVID-19 pandemic have underscored the vulnerability of extended supply chains and highlighted the importance of flexibility and resilience. The pandemic’s disruption of manufacturing and logistics operations worldwide has led to a renewed focus on supply chain diversification and resilience-building measures. Companies are increasingly adopting multi-sourcing strategies, exploring alternative manufacturing locations, and investing in technology to enhance supply chain visibility and responsiveness.

These shifts reflect a broader understanding that the risks of manufacturing in any one location must be evaluated not just in isolation but as part of a company’s overall approach to international trade and supply chain management. By integrating these considerations into their strategic planning, businesses can navigate the complexities of global manufacturing with greater confidence and agility, ensuring their operations are robust enough to withstand the challenges of an ever-evolving global market landscape.


Manufacturers must carefully assess risks when choosing locations for their manufacturing footprint. Though Mexico has challenges, many can be managed proactively through localization, training, and monitoring. But aspects of the China landscape – ingrained IP issues, centralized control, geopolitical and cultural barriers – make risk mitigation intrinsically difficult.

Considering navigating the legal aspects of manufacturing in China or Mexico? Our team of international trade and business lawyers can help you identify and mitigate risks, ensuring a smooth and successful operation.