China overtakes Japan as the world’s largest automobile exporter

Thanks to its armada of electric vehicle manufacturers, China dethroned Japan as the world’s leading automobile exporter last year, data published Wednesday by the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA) confirmed.

Japanese manufacturers exported 4.42 million cars, trucks and buses in 2023 (+16%), according to Jama.

Chinese automobile exports represented 4.91 million units last year (+57.9%) according to the Chinese Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM), or even 5.22 million units according to Chinese customs (+57%), according to data released earlier this month.

One in three vehicles exported from China was electric (1.77 million units, +67.1% over one year), again according to the country’s customs.

Japan had been the world’s top auto exporter since 2017, and the loss of its title last year to China was long predicted.

The importance of this shift must however be put into perspective, because Japanese manufacturers produce twice as many vehicles in their factories abroad (17 million units in 2022) as in the Japanese archipelago. While Chinese manufacturers still have few factories abroad.

For the fourth consecutive year, the Japanese giant Toyota remained the world’s leading automobile manufacturer in terms of volume sales last year, even setting a new historic record (11.2 million vehicles sold), according to figures published Tuesday .

Accusations of unfair competition

But the meteoric rise of Chinese manufacturers is worrying, in Japan – where local manufacturers are behind in 100% electric – as in Western countries.

The European Commission opened an investigation last September into alleged illegal subsidies from Beijing to Chinese electric manufacturers, accused of unfair competition by the European automobile industry.

The spectacular surge in Chinese automobile exports “leads to trade tensions” reminiscent of those of Western countries with Japan in the 1980s, commented CLSA analyst Christopher Richter a few months ago.

Also the current situation of the Chinese automobile industry is not tenable in the medium term, because its manufacturers will be pushed to produce massively in their foreign markets, like the Japanese from the 1980s, according to him.

The Chinese champion of electric cars BYD – which became the world number one in electric cars ahead of the American Tesla in the fourth quarter of 2023 – is already rapidly developing its production abroad.

BYD, for example, announced at the end of December the construction of a factory in Hungary to target the European market, and it also has similar projects elsewhere in the world, from Southeast Asia to Brazil.

Chinese rush towards Russia

“We must be careful not to generalize and say that it is only Chinese brands that are exported,” however, clarified Tu Le, director of the Chinese research firm Sino Auto Insights in a recent interview with AFP.

Tesla thus has a gigantic factory in Shanghai, which it uses not only to sell on the Chinese market but also for export.

“Global manufacturers also consider China as an export hub, due to the quality of the products manufactured there and the cost advantages they have (in China, Editor’s note) compared to Europe or the United States,” said Mr. Tu.

Russia and Mexico were the top two export markets for the Chinese auto industry in 2023, while most of its electrified vehicle exports were to Europe and Southeast Asia.

Exports of Chinese vehicles to Russia have exploded since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, while international sanctions against Russia have pushed Western and Japanese manufacturers out of this important market.

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