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Congressional Research Service, "U.S.-Chinese Motor Vehicle Trade: Overview and Issues," May 13, 2013

This CRS report was prepared by Ball Canis (specialist in Industrial Organization and Business) and Wayne M. Morrison (specialist in Asian Trade and Finance).
May 13, 2013

The U.S. auto industry employs nearly 800,000 workers and is a major employer in certain parts of the country. International competition is fierce, with many automakers and thousands of parts makers vying for market share. Because of the industry’s importance to the U.S. economy, the rapid rise of China’s auto assembly and auto parts industries in recent years has raised concerns among some Members of Congress.

In 2009, China overtook the United States to become both the world’s largest producer of and market for motor vehicles. In 2012, assemblers in China sold 19 million vehicles, and forecasts project more than 30 million vehicles will be sold there in 2020. China’s increasing importance in this industry presents a unique set of opportunities and challenges for the United States. On the one hand, China is in some respects a relatively open market; it was the fourth-largest export market for U.S. autos and auto parts in 2012 at $7.3 billion ($5.7 billion for autos and $1.6 billion for auto parts), and has welcomed foreign direct investment by U.S.-based auto and auto parts manufacturers. Every year since 2010, General Motors has sold more cars in China (through exports and its joint ventures there) than in the United States.

On the other hand, China maintains a number of trade and investment barriers that affect trade flows in autos and auto parts. Foreign automakers can produce autos in China only through 50/50 joint ventures with Chinese partners. In addition, U.S. and other foreign auto firms have reportedly faced pressures relating to transfer of technology, export performance, and domestic content requirements. Although the United States imports few vehicles from China, China has become the fourth-largest source of U.S. auto parts imports, with shipments of $14.5 billion in 2012.

The Chinese government has made the development of its auto and auto parts industries, including “new energy vehicles,” a major economic priority, and has implemented a number of industrial policies to promote and protect Chinese auto firms with the long-term goal of making them globally competitive. As a result, auto and auto parts trade has become a source of conflict between the United States and China, most recently in 2012, when the Obama Administration asked the World Trade Organization (WTO) to consider whether alleged Chinese subsidies of auto and auto parts manufacturers violate international rules.

China’s demand for motor vehicles is likely to continue growing rapidly because its population of 1.3 billion is just beginning to have the financial resources to purchase automobiles. For the United States, this will mean many new opportunities and challenges. Unlike some other markets, such as Korea, China’s large internal demand may well shape the industry for many years, with exporting a secondary interest. China’s rising investments in U.S. parts makers such as Nexteer and B456 Systems may help develop a U.S. technology lead in fuel-efficient, low-emission vehicles. But the prevalence of state and municipal ownership of many Chinese auto and auto parts companies may also cause friction. Many in Congress have called on the Obama Administration to take a tougher stand against China’s industrial policies that may favor Chinese automakers over foreign automakers.

Click here for a listing of reports released by the Congressional Research Service.

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