Tim Cook Touts Apple’s ‘Symbiotic’ Relationship With China Even as Tensions Rise

Tim Cook gave a glowing speech about China's innovation but skirted discussion about Apple pulling some of its manufacturing from the country.

Tim Cook in a black suit.
Apple CEO Tim Cook attends China Development Forum (CDF) on March 24, 2018 in Beijing, China. Visual China Group via Getty Images

Apple (AAPL) CEO Tim Cook is back in China for the first time in three years. After a few tumultuous pandemic years marked by rising geopolitical tensions, trade spats and Apple’s production exodus from the country, the Chinese government now is working to regain the trust of Western tech giants like Apple in a bid to save its slowing economy. At a government-hosted event over the weekend, Cook gave a glowing speech about the rapid pace of innovation in China, but skirted discussions about Apple’s actual decoupling with the country.

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Apple shares fell more than 1 percent today (March 27).

Apple supports more than 5 million manufacturing and retail jobs in China and generates about 20 percent of its revenue from the country. Until last year, the California company made more than 95 percent of iPhones in China through its contractor, Taiwan-based Foxconn.

On March 24, Cook showed up at an Apple store in Beijing, according to photos and videos circulated on social media. The next day, he attended the China Development Forum 2023, a government-organized annual business conference that was paused during the pandemic.

At a keynote speech on March 25, Cook said Apple and China had “grown together” over the past three decades, referring to Apple’s vast production base in the country dating back to the Steve Jobs years.

“This has been a symbiotic kind of relationship that we have both enjoyed,” Cook said at the event. “I am thrilled to be back in China. It means the world to me and I feel really privileged to be here.”

The rest of his speech focused on innovation and education in China. There was no mention of Apple’s production shift to India last year.

Apple’s gradual decoupling with China

For years, factories across China owned by Apple contractor Foxconn had been a reliable supplier of smartphones, tablets, computers and other Apple products. That changed last year when production at these factories was disrupted by the Chinese government’s zero-Covid policy, which led to frequent factory shutdown and worker quarantine.

In November, a wave of worker protests erupted at a Foxconn factory in central China, the world’s largest iPhone plant. Weeks-long unrest caused some 6 million iPhones to be delayed, or 10 percent of Apple’s annual production target at the plant.

Since zero-Covid, Apple has moved some iPhone manufacturing to India, where the government recently introduced policies to incentivize consumer tech industries. This year, India is on track to double its iPhone export from last, and Apple’s long-term goal is to manufacture a quarter of iPhones in the country, India’s Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal said in January.

Apple’s withdrawal from China could prompt many Western companies relying on Chinese manufacturing to do the same and eventually damage China’s export-dependent economy.

Cook might have touched on the topic behind closed doors with Chinese government officials. Today, the Apple CEO met with Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao, according to a government press release. They discussed stabilizing industrial supply chains and Apple’s future development in China, among other topics. Wang stressed that China is willing to provide a friendly environment for foreign companies including Apple.

Over the weekend, Wang held meetings with the leaders of Qualcomm, Nestle, Pfizer, Mercedez, BMW, French luxury group Kering, Corning and Proctor & Gamble, according to government releases. They were also invited to attend the China Development Forum.

Tim Cook Touts Apple’s ‘Symbiotic’ Relationship With China Even as Tensions Rise