Home/ Politics / No role for India yet in Tesla’s new global supply chain hedge

From India to Indonesia, Elon Musk is scouting for sites to make more Teslas. With the world mired in supply chain chaos, access to materials matters most. He’s got it right. After lobbying against India’s tight manufacturing policies and prohibitive import duties, Musk is headed to meet Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo and visit parts of the country, which is also the top producer of nickel, a key metal for batteries. That’s an astute bet—for Tesla and Indonesia. And a missed opportunity for New Delhi. To meet ambitious electric vehicle (EV) targets, Indonesia has drawn in several battery and car makers in recent months with a variety of incentives.

With a friendly policy bolstering the country’s EV goals, companies have started committing billions of dollars. LG Energy Solution, along with others, is investing about $9 billion in a full supply chain from mining to manufacturing in the country. With Hyundai, the firm is developing a battery plant, too. Meanwhile, the world’s top powerpack maker Contemporary Amperex is investing almost $6 billion in a battery project with state-backed Aneka Tambang and Industri Baterai Indonesia. Further up the value chain, China’s Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt and Vale Indonesia announced they would work together on a nickel project.

The move by companies across the EV supply chain into Southeast Asia’s largest economy shows how important it is to be close to a source of raw materials. If there’s one thing the past year of logistical screw-ups and delays has shown the industry, it’s that proximity is key. Even if global supply and demand is balanced on paper, moving industrial goods around is expensive.

Tesla knows this well. It has created large manufacturing hubs in China and Germany. After having trouble making EVs in the US, its market share has grown globally. Now the EV-maker is looking to secure materials and make its own batteries, while stopping short of buying mines . Wherever Musk sees problems in production, he looks for a solution. Tesla is essentially creating discrete supply chains across the globe.

Indonesia churns out around 1 million cars in a good year, and is dominated by Japanese producers’ smaller vehicles. Its auto market pales in comparison with China’s and the US’s, with EVs a small portion. Potential sales generated in Indonesia wouldn’t really move the needle for Tesla. Yet, Jakarta is leveraging existing resources, an EV business-friendly policy and the right story to make it fertile ground for large-scale investment. The moment that happens, Indonesia will be able to boast about its battery manufacturing supply chain on the global scale.

Meanwhile, India continues to hem and haw over import duties. Government officials in New Delhi have made bold statements about their ambitions, talking up their desire to draw in Tesla. Earlier this month, road transport minister Nitin Gadkari said that Tesla would benefit from a plant in India. Yet, customers who placed orders are still waiting and it’s unclear how Musk’s firm would get a leg up. Now, there are questions around whether Tesla will make its way into India at all.

That is probably a good bet, too. Firms are worried about procuring parts and dealing with logistical issues and high shipping costs. Progress on EVs has been scattered and commitment isn’t clear. Toyota, one of the world’s biggest automakers but an EV laggard globally, has pledged to invest $624 million in making EV components through its existing units in India, but it’s unclear who will buy them. Even India’s top automaker Maruti Suzuki isn’t planning on EVs until 2025. Add in policy hoops and punitive taxes, and India has all but ruled itself out by making the cost of investing in its market so high. India’s vaccine king, Adar Poonawalla, also decided to weigh in earlier this month. He tweeted that putting capital into making cars in India would be the “best investment" Musk would “ever make." That’s perhaps too optimistic.

EV and battery manufacturers are in high demand across the globe and it will take far more than bold words and political ambition. Resources must be made available and policy should be sufficiently coherent for manufacturers to work with. It’s bizzare, then, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government continues to hold back. Yes, there are a few local EV models, but the Indian auto market remains an aspirational one. That means wide-scale adoption will pick up pace only once there are enough models that people want to buy—like Tesla’s Model 3—and enough charging facilities that make it easy, as the evolution of the two-wheeler market showed.

Just as China made Tesla a global company, Indonesia could do the same for its battery supply chain. All while making manufacturing more affordable and eventually, EVs, too. It’s a means to an end—and a smart one at that. ©bloomberg

Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Asia.

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Updated: 12 May 2022, 10:47 PM IST
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