Just as President Donald Trump was announcing a barrage of tariffs against China to punish it for restrictive trade practices — practices the auto industry knows all too well — dealers at the NADA Show were flocking to booth No. 274N at the Las Vegas Convention Center to kick the tires of what could be the first Chinese-brand vehicle sold in the U.S., Guangzhou Automobile Group's GS8 crossover.
Yes, the Chinese vehicles are almost here. And no, they're not cheap plastic knockoffs of Western models or econo-boxes. They are well-conceived crossovers, large and small, right in the sweet spot of the U.S. market. There are dealers who are eager to sell and service them, and judging by the fairly positive response to GAC's gracious appearance at the Detroit auto show — some foreign automakers won't even make that effort — there will be customers interested in buying them.
There was a time when all this would have been viewed, at least symbolically, as an economic threat, a challenge to American supremacy. But that time has passed, as has the opportunity to do anything about it.
China still commands a mercantilist-style economy, as many of history's great powers once did. The walls it has built to restrict foreign influence and regulate trade are veritable national monuments, and the government's protectionist tendencies haven't eased, even though the economy has outgrown the need for protective measures.
But for better or worse, this is the China the global auto industry has fallen in love with, a wealth factory that's gobbling up more than half of the world's Cadillacs, funding innovation in electrification, driving demand for luxury and ultraluxury goods, not to mention Buicks and Volkswagens. It's also the source of capital that's resurrecting suppliers and powering startups around the world. For all its challenges, the trade relationship works.
The U.S. might seek political points by attacking China as protectionist, but it's no longer in any position to lecture Beijing on that issue.
Moreover, who has the appetite for a fight when there are franchises to be earned, deals to be signed, opportunities to be seized, and billions of dollars' worth of cars, trucks and parts to be bought and sold?