Trade War Watch 16: US Doesn't Understand China's EV Policy, Rattles Saber Anyway

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

George Orwell’s warning, that “the first victim of war is the truth,” apparently applies equally to trade wars. On Friday, Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow (both D-MI) wrote the United States Trade Representative to express their concern over “reported draft regulations” of China’s New Energy Vehicle plan, noting

We are concerned that these draft regulations continue China’s long history of breaking international trade rules.

Given that the ongoing low-level trade war between the US and China, this was a predictable bit of saber-rattling. But if Levin and Stabenow’s political motivations are easy to understand, the logic that leads them to believe China’s New Energy Vehicle plan is a violation of international trade rules is not. Meanwhile, neither the Senators nor the USTR appear not to have heard about another, more serious possible trade issue arising from China’s headlong dash towards electric vehicles. Sounds like a job for The Truth About Cars…

The Stabenow/Levin letter is long on button-pushing and short on facts, telling the USTR that

In its latest National Trade Estimate (NTE), your office highlighted a new Chinese trade barrier that is designed to prevent U.S. automakers from accessing the Chinese market. According to the NTE, China is in the process of drafting new regulations as part of its New Energy Vehicles (NEV) plan, which seeks to advance hybrid and battery electric vehicle production in China.

So, what does the 2011 NTE say about China’s automotive trade barriers? Precisely two paragraphs, as it turns out, only one of which deals directly with this alleged new barrier to EV business. Still, the entire passage is relevant to the dispute, so we have reproduced it below:

In May 2004, China issued a new automobile industrial policy, the Policy on Development of the Automotive Industry, and subsequently it issued implementing regulations that unfairly discriminated against imported automotive parts and discouraged automobile manufacturers in China from using imported automotive parts in the assembly of vehicles. In 2006, the United States, the EU and Canada initiated dispute settlement proceedings against China at the WTO. The WTO ultimately ruled in favor of the United States. In September 2009, China repealed the challenged measures.

Various U.S. industries are concerned about Chinese policies that may discriminate against foreign products. For example, the U.S. automotive industry is concerned that foreign-invested producers of New Energy Vehicles (NEVs) and NEV parts in China may begin to face discrimination. China is developing new regulations as part of its NEV plan, which encompasses hybrid and battery electric vehicles. Current drafts reportedly specify that automakers that intend to manufacture electric vehicles in China must demonstrate a “mastery” level of proficiency in key parts such as electric vehicle batteries, motors or control systems before receiving a license to produce and sell electric vehicles. In addition, according to reports on current drafts, the Chinese entity that manufacturers the vehicle, either a domestic manufacturer or joint venture operation, must demonstrate clear ownership of intellectual property rights to the technologies that enable the “mastery.” U.S. industry is concerned that China may implement these proposed requirements by requiring that production of key NEV parts take place in China. These proposed requirements also give rise to concerns that foreign manufacturers of NEVs and NEV parts will be compelled to contribute their intellectual property to their Chinese joint venture operations in order to fully participate in the NEV market.

This is the complete basis for the Stabenow/Levin letter, which in turn has already led to several highly misleading media reports. And no wonder: not only is the USTR’s analysis shockingly vague, but its sourcing also leaves much to be desired, referencing only “reports” of “current drafts” of China’s NEV plan. Moreover, its conclusions serve far better as a way to ratchet up anti-China rhetoric than as a way to reflect the reality of China’s proposed EV development plan.

Because the paragraphs quoted from the NTE above contain no direct reference to which “reports” of “current drafts” of the NEV it is concerned with, TTAC has had to dig around quite a bit for those “reports.” An initial survey of media reports uncovers stories like this one, from ChinaAutoReview, which cites First Financial Daily (a paper affiliated with several Chinese Communist party organizations) and quotes a multinational auto parts executive as saying

This policy may force a large group of foreign-invested companies in China to adjust their stake

But this is not the whole story, as the FFD has its (pro-party) biases and CAR (owned by China Business Update) has separate pro-Western business biases. The paper’s “About Us” section notes

Our clients include Fortune 500 OEMs and suppliers, investment banks, accounting firms, consulting firms, government agencies and trade associations. With our extensive networks in China and the world, we make sure that our clients get the best possible services available to help them tap into the Chinese automobile and components market.

Still, if all the sources on the matter agreed with CAR/FFD’s findings, we might agree that this draft legislation is troubling. However, a little more research turns up a month-old report from the law firm of Vinson & Elkins [ PDF here] which both clarifies the proposed laws and (not coincidentally) provides a less worrying interpretation of it. The report notes

In 2010, the MIIT circulated two drafts of the New Energy Auto Industry Development Plan among the major automobile manufacturers in the PRC for comment. The plan seeks to meet the State Council’s Energy Savings and Emission Reduction requirements, as well as the State Council’s strategy for Strategic Development of New Industry. If promulgated, the plan will govern foreign investments in the electric vehicle industry. While the official version of this new plan has not been issued yet, comparison of the two released drafts yields an interesting change of language regarding equity participation under the New Energy Auto Industry Development Plan.

As provided in the first draft, the Chinese party to a joint venture must hold at least 51 percent of the shares, regardless of whether the joint venture is for the production of automobiles or for only the production of critical auto components. However, such language was deleted in the second draft issued on 9 September 2010, such that the 2007 Investment Catalogue becomes controlling for investments in the electric vehicle industry. Under the 2007 Investment Catalogue, only automobile final assembly requires the Chinese partner to hold a majority ownership interest, as noted above. The production of automotive parts is therefore not subject to a restriction on foreign majority ownership (although certain investments require either an equity joint venture or a cooperative joint venture of which the Chinese partner must own at least a non- controlling interest, as also noted). Moreover, pending the implementation of the New Energy Auto Industry Development Plan, the 2007 Investment Catalogue currently remains controlling over foreign investment in this area.

Here we find that an initial draft of the NEV plan did require that non-final-assembly producers of key NEV components be majority owned by a Chinese partner, but we also learn that this draft has since been superseded by language that maintains the law as it currently exists. In other words, the concerns of the USTR and Senators Stabenow and Levin were recognized and alleviated by the Chinese as early as September of last year. Somehow, the US concerns managed to be both premature (appearing before final approval of the plan) and woefully out-of-date (criticizing a draft that has since been superseded by language which does not change the basic realities of investing in China’s EV industry).

The Vinson & Elkins report goes on to explain, in some detail, the finer points of China’s NEV investment policy, including the issue of “mastery” which so concerned both the USTR and Senators Stabenow and Levin. There are, it turns out, three categories of EV business qualifications: the “starting,” “developing,” and “mature” phases (one assumes this final category refers to the “mastery” requirement criticized by the American saber-rattlers). It is important to note that none of these phases require any technology transfers beyond requiring that products “not violate any third-party intellectual property rights.” Even if the earlier draft NEV plan were to pass, and manufacturers of key EV components were forced to create joint ventures, they would simply operate as all Chinese (and, it should be noted, Indian) joint ventures do: through the licensing of technology from the foreign partner. In fact, many Western “automotive experts” do not realize that much of the profit earned by foreign automakers with Chinese JVs comes from technology licensing rather than profits on sales, which are notoriously difficult to repatriate.

In short, through just a little research we’ve learned that the draft proposal which so frightened the USTR and Senators Stabenow and Levin has since been superseded by a version which does not appear to make the changes that drew such an angry response. Furthermore, the details provided in the V&E report indicate that, even if the initial draft were passed, it would not fundamentally change the rules of doing business in China, or coerce foreign firms to “sign over” technology or build components in China in an anticompetitive manner.

Of course, if that initial draft were passed, it could require suppliers to take on Chinese partners where they might not have otherwise. And though it seems that draft will not be approved, it’s worth understanding why that might be a natural development from the current JV system. One of the key issues in the shift from ICE vehicles to battery-powered vehicles is a concentration of value into the battery and associated systems. The since-rejected measure makes sense for any joint-venture-based market, as it prevents the final assembly partnership from being relegated to the smallest possible slice of the value chain. But since no new coercive technology transfer is called for in any of the drafts of the NEV plan, foreign partners will be able to replace any profit they might have accrued by building the batteries as a wholly foreign-owned enterprise (WFOE) and selling them at a profit to the joint venture by licensing their battery technology to the joint venture instead.

Meanwhile, the USTR and its friends in the US Senate could learn a thing or two from the companies who are actually facing these possible (but again, unlikely) changes in Chinese policy. A Reuters piece filed from the Shanghai Auto Show quotes executives from several foreign supplier companies who are active in the NEV “key components” manufacturing business, and their response to the “proposed drafts” was the exact opposite of the American saber-rattlers. An analyst expresses concern at the proposal, but Robin Choi, director of commercial business development for the Asia-Pacific division of Johnson Controls is more pragmatic, telling Reuters

We are kind of surprised that they limited it at 50 percent. It’s a little bit of a concern for us. To be honest, we don’t know what the result will be, but we are continuing the dialogue with the government. It’s not official yet. If it is, we might have to follow the rules.

Hans-Peter Kunze, Valeo’s senior executive vice president of sales and business development adds

It’s still a draft and how many drafts have we seen in our lives?

Perhaps Herr Kunze has already read the V&E report? Finally Wolfgang Dangel, president of Schaeffler’s Asia-Pacific division strikes the note that seems to define the response of the suppliers who would be affected by any change to these laws, saying

We just have to be alert to watch very carefully about what will happen. No matter what the final outcome will be, we can contribute one way or the other. At the end of the day, we are still confident as we have enough technology and expertise on our hands.

Unless the Chinese government were actively eyeing ways to directly coerce that technology out of the hands of these suppliers, a perception that the USTR and Senators Stabenow and Levin are clearly anxious to fuel despite a total lack of evidence for it, these firms will be just fine. Sure they might have to set up JVs (again, this seems unlikely given the revisions noted in the V&E report) but as long as they can license their technology, they still have their major source of Chinese profits.

By now it should be fairly clear that the USTR and its allies in the US Senate are in a tizzy about something that might not happen, and wouldn’t bother the industry it directly affects much even if it did happen. I’m no WTO expert, but the idea that there are US-based producers of batteries and other key EV systems who are desperate to export them to China for CKD assembly rather than licensing technology for low-cost Chinese production isn’t wildly credible. After all, there’s only one “knock-down”-style EV currently in production… and that’s the CODA EV, which is “assembled” in the US by a US company, out of batteries and a sedan which are both built in China. Imagine that business model working in the opposite direction… not easy, is it?

And while US Senators and trade officials fret over a phantom menace, another real issue is emerging from China’s rush to push EV production and consumption that has completely escaped their notice. As Bertel has documented in considerable depth, a combination of municipal and Central Government subsidies will give Chinese consumers over $18,000 for every EV purchased… and according to rumors we’re hearing out of China (which we will, of course, confirm as soon as humanly possible), those credits are available only to buyers of Chinese-made vehicles made by Chinese brands. If true, this subsidy would certainly constitute an anti-competitive policy (imagine how the White House might have structured Cash-for-Clunkers, or how Japan might have structured its own efficiency-oriented subsidies).

Moreover, if Beijing’s decision to exempt EVs from its registration lottery and traffic restrictions similarly applies only to EVs made in China by Chinese brands, these two policies would create a powerful barrier to what is likely to become the first major Chinese EV market (which happens to be about the size of the Australian market). And since subsidies will be spreading to cities across China, the even more powerful registration lottery and traffic restrictions could too, potentially banning even joint ventures from China’s EV market. This, not an unlikely and ineffectual policy shift on the supplier side, is what America’s trade representatives and concerned Senators should be looking at. After all, if it’s enough to make Bertel Schmitt an EV believer…

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2 of 5 comments
  • Bryce Chessum Bryce Chessum on May 02, 2011

    Out of their league but still for sale to lobby groups

  • Becurb Becurb on May 02, 2011

    Or this is political threatre for their constituents. They (Levin and Stabenow) needed some headlines for the "folks back home", and this was a cheap and effective way to generate said headlines. Bruce