As we wait — and wait — on the U.S. arrival of Chinese brands such as GAC and Chery, the Chinese auto industry can seem far away.
We know China became the world's biggest vehicle market during the Great Recession, rivaling Europe and the U.S. combined. But aside from Li Shufu's ownership of Volvo (and his stake in Daimler and other audacious projects), the Chinese auto industry may as well be Jupiter. Large, yes, but too distant to matter.
But think again. The truth, as laid out in this week's special section, is that China has started weaving its way into the North American auto industry. More than 100 Chinese entities have investments in the U.S. — making parts, researching cutting-edge technology, financing electric vehicle brands and probing for opportunities from advanced design and manufacturing to retailing and the aftermarket.
They are all around us, but mostly in Michigan and Silicon Valley, where they can find proven talent and the world's top innovators.
Because while China is the biggest market, the U.S. remains the most lucrative one.
Now that they're here in force, it's important to understand what that means. Will Chinese cars be reliable and safe enough for American tastes? Dealers contemplating opening a Chinese-branded store have all these questions and then some, including about tariffs and regulations that may keep swinging dramatically every four or eight years.
What we know is that the Chinese won't hold back. Already, the People's Republic has strong-armed global automakers with investment restrictions and limited respect for patents, brand names and other intellectual property. And this megapolluting nation is poised to steer global powertrain technologies to suit its markets, politics and economic aspirations.
All of this means that trade policy with China needs to be a higher-order pursuit — one that isn't reduced to simple "us vs. them" thinking.
Policymakers and industry participants need a clear view into the complex web of economic relationships — as we've tried to lay out here — to see what's really there and how to respond to it. Deep, clear-headed thinking is needed as we head to work each day, and into the voting booths this week.