China auto industry gradually opening

Benjamin Cavender China Plus Published: 2018-05-29 17:55:40
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By Ben Cavender

China has announced that it will reduce tariffs on imported automobiles from a current rate of 25% to 15% from July 1st.  Additionally, tariffs on imports of auto parts will also be reduced to 6% from the current range of 8% to 25%.  This has been lauded as a response to U.S. trade complaints.  But in reality this decision has been some time in coming, and does not represent a trade concession so much as an incremental opening of China's economy and a step by China's government to encourage continued consumption growth.  

A staff member steps out from the Rolls Royce luxury car during the China Auto China in Beijing, Thursday, April 26, 2018.[Photo: AP/Andy Wong]

A staff member steps out from the Rolls Royce luxury car during the China Auto China in Beijing, Thursday, April 26, 2018.[Photo: AP/Andy Wong]

In early April at the Boao Forum for Asia, President Xi Jinping stated that "This year we will significantly lower import tariffs on motor vehicles and reduce import tariffs on some other products," and that "We will import more products that are competitive and needed by our people."  Regardless of demands by US negotiators to balance the trade deficit between China and the US, we are likely to see continued small steps by China to reduce restrictions on foreign imports as part of a longer-term strategy to drive domestic consumption.  This is not because China is caving to US demands for a balanced trade relationship.  

The last few years have seen a massive shift in China's economy away from an overreliance on exports and investment towards a growth model that is based on consumer spending.  Last year, consumption accounted for between 58% and 59% of China's GDP.  In 2018 this number is on track to cross 60%.  For China, this transition to consumption-based growth is critical due to the uncertainty of export growth, the challenge of switching from basic manufacturing to more complex value-added manufacturing and because investment in infrastructure projects is no longer resulting in sustained economic growth.  As a result, we are seeing the government take steps to encourage consumer spending.  Some of these steps will include reductions in tariffs that will ultimately benefit China's trade partners.

The result of reduced tariffs within the auto sector will mean that foreign automakers like BMW and Tesla, which currently import a relatively higher proportion of the vehicles that they sell in China, will benefit.  This means luxury models will become slightly more affordable for Chinese consumers.  However, it is unlikely that this action will do much to change the plans of global automakers, or shift trade numbers between China and the US, as foreign auto makers have spent the last decade investing heavily in JV partnerships with Chinese firms to boost production in China.  This is order to bypass tariffs.  In fact, only around 4% of all vehicles sold in China are imported.  Additionally, as Chinese demand for cars grows, many automakers have also moved their design and development operations to China to better meet the needs of Chinese consumers.  An increasing number of new vehicles are also being developed specifically for production and sale in China.

From the perspective of foreign automakers, lower tariffs will be seen as a step forward.  However, the vast majority have already committed substantial resources to developing production capacity inside China, meaning a reduction of tariffs at this stage is unlikely to change automakers' long-term plans towards shifting production to China.  This makes a coming tariff reduction for cars imported into China an easy win for president Xi Jinping.  China is essentially doing what it had always planned to do.  From the outside, this may make it look as though China is being conciliatory towards the US in trade negotiations, even if this small reduction in tariffs will not really change the status quo for American companies or American job creation.  Meanwhile, president Trump and the rest of his negotiating team have failed to get on the same page in their negotiation strategies, failing to secure real long-term concessions that would balance trade or perhaps - more importantly - balance long-term competitiveness in key industries.

In the end, Chinese consumers win, as they gain access to a wider range of choices and better prices. China wins because it takes a small step towards opening its markets, and car companies get to sell more high-margin products.  However, the trade relationship between China and the US doesn't really change. China's approach to development has always been one of taking gradual steps towards a larger objective.  This is something the Trump administration could learn from, rather than chasing quick wins that appear good in the short-term, but do little to help over the long-run. With Chinese automakers also taking the lead in the development of next generation EV vehicles, it will also be interesting to see what the future holds for China's domestic auto industry, as it should be poised to benefit from both the lowering of tariffs on auto parts, which may make their product cheaper, as well as lower pricing hurdles enough to convince consumers to pay premium prices as well.

(Benjamin Cavender is director of China Market Research Group)

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LU Xiankun Professor LU Xiankun is Managing Director of LEDECO Geneva and Associate Partner of IDEAS Centre Geneva. He is Emeritus Professor of China Institute for WTO Studies of the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) and Wuhan University (WHU) of China and visiting professor or senior research fellow of some other universities and think tanks in China and Europe. He also sits in management of some international business associations and companies, including as Senior Vice President of Shenzhen UEB Technology LTD., a leading e-commerce company of China. Previously, Mr. LU was senior official of Chinese Ministry of Commerce and senior diplomat posted in Europe, including in Geneva as Counsellor and Head of Division of the Permanent Mission of China to the WTO and in Brussels as Commercial Secretary of the Permanent Mission of China to the EU. Benjamin Cavender Benjamin Cavender is a Shanghai based consultant with more than 11 years of experience helping companies understand consumer behavior and develop go to market strategies for China. He is a frequent speaker on economic and consumer trends in China and is often featured on CNBC, Bloomberg, and Channel News Asia. Sara Hsu Sara Hsu is an associate professor from the State University of New York at New Paltz. She is a regular commentator on Chinese economy. Xu Qinduo Xu Qinduo is CRI's former chief correspondent to Washington DC, the United States. He works as the producer, host and commentator for TODAY, a flagship talk show on current affairs. Mr. Xu contributes regularly to English-language newspapers including Shenzhen Daily and Global Times as well as Chinese-language radio and TV services. Lin Shaowen A radio person, Mr. Lin Shaowen is strongly interested in international relations and Chinese politics. As China is quite often misunderstood in the rest of the world, he feels the need to better present the true picture of the country, the policies and meanings. So he talks a lot and is often seen debating. Then friends find a critical Lin Shaowen criticizing and criticized. George N. Tzogopoulos Dr George N. Tzogopoulos is an expert in media and politics/international relations as well as Chinese affairs. He is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre International de Européenne (CIFE) and Visiting Lecturer at the European Institute affiliated with it and is teaching international relations at the Department of Law of the Democritus University of Thrace. George is the author of two books: US Foreign Policy in the European Media: Framing the Rise and Fall of Neoconservatism (IB TAURIS) and The Greek Crisis in the Media: Stereotyping in the International Press (Ashgate) as well as the founder of, an institutional partner of CRI Greek. David Morris David Morris is the Pacific Islands Trade and Investment Commissioner in China, a former Australian diplomat and senior political adviser. Harvey Dzodin After a distinguished career in the US government and American media Dr. Harvey Dzodin is now a Beijing-based freelance columnist for several media outlets. While living in Beijing, he has published over 200 columns with an emphasis on arts, culture and the Belt & Road initiative. He is also a sought-after speaker and advisor in China and abroad. He currently serves as Nonresident Research Fellow of the think tank Center for China and Globalization and Senior Advisor of Tsinghua University National Image Research Center specializing in city branding. Dr. Dzodin was a political appointee of President Jimmy Carter and served as lawyer to a presidential commission. Upon the nomination of the White House and the US State Department he served at the United Nations Office in Vienna, Austria. He was Director and Vice President of the ABC Television in New York for more than two decades.