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Why Beijing Probably Won't Punish U.S. Automakers for Trump's Sins

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This month, President-elect Donald Trump stirred a hornets' nest when he disputed the assumption that Taiwan is part of China, a decades-old policy that has allowed the region to prosper.

Yang Jian
Yang Jian

Two days later, China Daily reported that the government's antitrust agency may penalize General Motors for monopolistic behavior. Coincidence?

Some observers fear this could become a pattern: that Beijing will vent its anger on U.S. companies whenever Mr. Trump annoys it. Well, such fears are not totally groundless, but there are three reasons why U.S. automakers aren't likely to be singled out.

First, it is still not clear that the GM investigation was actually triggered by Chinese ire at Trump. Anti-monopoly investigations are lengthy processes. A Chinese official told China Daily that the probe was complete, so it's highly unlikely that it was prompted by Mr. Trump. It would have started long ago.

Second, Beijing would have to weigh the financial interests of the U.S. automakers' Chinese partners -- state-owned companies that wield considerable influence. GM's joint ventures with SAIC Motor Co. and Ford's partnership with Chongqing Changan Automobile Co. are prospering. In fact, SAIC and Changan rely on the income from these ventures to invest in their own proprietary brands. While China is still a relatively small market for Chrysler, sales are growing thanks to Jeep's popularity. Fiat Chrysler's partner, Guangzhou Automobile Group Co., has profited nicely.

There is yet another reason why GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler aren't likely scapegoats. Even if China is determined to retaliate, there isn't much it can do. The easiest way to punish a foreign company would be to slap anti-dumping tariffs on imported vehicles. But GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler produce nearly all their models in China.

In the first 11 months, GM has sold 3.4 million vehicles in China; only a few thousand were imported. In the same period, Ford's China sales approached 1.1 million vehicles, of which fewer than 15,000 were imports. To be sure, if Trump stumbles into a full-blow trade war with China, operations of the Detroit 3 automakers would certainly be affected -- along with every other U.S. company.

Similar incidents have happened before to the Japanese automakers. Several years ago, a fierce dispute between China and Japan over the ownership of a few tiny islands in the East China Sea stirred deep anti-Japanese resentment among Chinese citizens. In some Chinese cities, Japanese cars were smashed after riots broke out, and many Chinese consumers boycotted Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

But U.S.-China relations are arguably the most important bilateral relations in today's world. I believe Mr. Trump will start to take those relations more seriously after assuming the presidency. Auto manufacturing has become a highly globalized business. A stable relationship between the world's two largest economies is in the best interest of American and Chinese automakers alike.

Yang Jian is editor of Automotive News China.

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