President Donald Trump’s escalating trade war with China has one automaker based in the world’s largest country pumping the brakes, which may reduce competition for other Chinese automakers racing to launch in the U.S.
GAC said last week that it is postponing the rollout of its dealership network, which had been slated for 2020, following the Trump administration’s decision to ratchet up tariffs on Chinese goods amid a lack of progress in trade talks.
GAC, which has a successful joint venture in China making and selling Jeeps with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, sought to be the first Chinese automaker to break into the U.S. and has been meeting with potential retailers, including over 80 dealers and partners at the NADA Show in San Francisco this year. But trade tensions have now delayed its progress for a second time. Just last year, GAC postponed its original plans to launch in late 2019.
“Due to the uncertainty of the U.S.-China trade relationship, we’ve postponed our entry into the U.S. market temporarily,” said Zeng Hebin, international president of GAC Motor, in an interview with CNBC. “As to when we will enter that market, we will discuss and decide later depending on the developments with respect to trade.”
Meanwhile, Chinese counterparts Zotye USA and Lynk & CO said last week their U.S. plans are on track.
Although Trump has been threatening since his presidential campaign to crack down on what he calls unfair trade practices, analysts see the escalation of the dispute with China as a major development. Chinese companies could interpret the move as a next-level threat.
And unresolved trade disputes revolving around the auto industry affect more than just China. The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement, is stalled in Congress, and the Trump administration continues to threaten a 25 percent tariff on imported autos and auto parts from around the world.
“It’s eminently reasonable [to pull back], and Chinese automakers and suppliers are not the only ones exercising caution about investing in the U.S. right now,” said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Center for Automotive Research. “There is so much unsettled with the new NAFTA not yet passed as well as the ongoing disputes with China and open negotiations with Japan and the European Union. Those companies that don’t have to make an essential investment right now seem to be holding back a bit.”
GAC has been the most aggressive of the Chinese automakers planning U.S. sales.
Globally, GAC said, it has established operations in 16 nations, including the U.S. and Russia, since 2013. At last week’s opening ceremony for Hong Kong subsidiary GAC Motor International, the automaker said it will have operations in 25 countries by the end of this year. It currently sells autos in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and South America.
GAC delivered 535,168 sedans, crossovers and SUVs under the Trumpchi brand in China last year, a gain of 5.2 percent from a year earlier. The Trumpchi brand name is unrelated to the Trump family name, GAC has said.
Zotye: ‘No change’
GAC’s postponement of U.S. retail sales could open the door for another Chinese automaker to beat it to market. Zotye USA named its first U.S. franchised dealers in January, with a planned retail launch late next year or soon afterward.
Zotye USA was created in October after parent company HAAH Automotive Holdings of Lake Forest, Calif., signed a distributor agreement with China’s Zotye Auto.
Duke Hale, CEO of HAAH, told Automotive News last week his company’s plans have not changed.
“I can reconfirm that Zotye USA remains committed to selling vehicles in the U.S. starting at the end of 2020 or the beginning of 2021,” he wrote in an email. “Our efforts in signing up franchised new-vehicle dealers continue to be ahead of plan. We’ve seen no change in dealer interest.”
Hale has said that the company plans to enter the top 80 U.S. markets, with 300 to 325 sales points. The initial vehicle to go on sale will be a Chinese-made crossover, the T600, which has been sold in China since 2013.
Lynk’s cautious approach
Another Chinese automaker that has plans for U.S. sales — and concerns about Trump tariffs — is Geely Automobile Holdings. The owner of Volvo Cars is targeting the U.S. with an upstart brand, Lynk & CO, which began selling its 01, 02 and 03 models last year in China.
Lynk CEO Alain Visser said last week that the brand still expects to enter the North American market within the next few years, despite an increasingly hostile trade environment between the U.S. and Chinese governments. Visser, a veteran of Volvo, Opel and General Motors, said Lynk & CO’s business model has been built on a “worst-case scenario” with regard to import taxes.
“If things get worse, then we have a problem, but we think that’s unlikely to happen,” he said in an interview at the Automotive News Europe Congress in Gothenburg, Sweden, the home base of Volvo Car Group. Lynk & CO will initially export cars from China to the U.S. and Europe.
Visser said Lynk was fortunate in some ways to be formulating its business model in the midst of a trade dispute. “One thing you learn in this business is that the external environment changes all the time. Today, of course, it’s brutal,” he said.