For China’s booming EV industry, US and EU markets a tough nut to crack

Chinese EVs are facing a slew of tariffs in Western markets as policymakers fear local brands cannot compete on price.

BYD was the world's best-selling EV maker in the final quarter of 2023 [Pedro Pardo/AFP]

Taipei, Taiwan – Earlier this year, electric car enthusiast Anders Berner eagerly opened the door of a BYD Seal to take the sedan on a test drive outside the Danish capital, Copenhagen.

Berner was already impressed by how far Chinese EV makers like BYD Auto had come in a short time.

“Many Chinese EVs are made with excellent materials and have been put together well – they are high-quality cars,” Berner, a mechanical engineer by trade, told Al Jazeera.

“And in terms of battery technology for EVs, Chinese companies are leading the field.”

Berner is among those who believe that Chinese EVs have the qualities needed to become the dominant player in the global car market.

Compared with Western brands, Chinese EVs have a leg-up in terms of affordability.

In the European Union, Chinese EVs typically sell for 20 percent less than EU-made models, according to the European Commission.

Chinese battery maker CATL, which supplies Tesla, Volkswagen and BMW as well as Chinese EV makers, alone supplies about 40 percent of the world’s EV batteries and in late April unveiled the first battery with a driving range of more than 1,000 kilometres on a single charge.

Chinese EVs are increasingly making their mark overseas.

Shenzhen-based BYD sold 525,409 EVs across all markets during the final quarter of last year to become the world’s biggest electric car company, beating Tesla’s 484,507 units.

China narrowly failed to overtake Japan as the world’s largest car exporter overall with 5.22 million vehicles sold overseas.

In the European Union, Chinese EVs increased their market share to 8.2 percent in 2023, up from 0.5 percent in 2019.

The European Federation for Transport and Environment has projected that market share to rise to 11 percent this and as high as 20 percent by 2027.

US President Joe Biden has said he will not allow Chinese carmakers to ‘flood’ the US market [Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters (Reuters)

Growing concern in Western capitals, however, is threatening to derail Chinese EVs’ rapid rise.

United States President Joe Biden has cast China’s industrial policy as a national security threat, pledging not to allow its manufacturers to “flood” the US market with its vehicles.

“I am not going to let that happen on my watch,” Biden said in March.

Although the Chinese market share of EVs sold in the US is already negligible, Biden in May announced that he would quadruple tariffs on Chinese EVs to 100 percent and triple tariffs on Chinese lithium-ion EV batteries to 25 percent.

The EU has echoed Washington’s concerns.

On Wednesday, the EU Commission announced that new duties of between 17.4 percent and 38.1 percent would be imposed on Chinese EVs from July 4 unless Beijing offers a “solution” to subsidies that the bloc says are distorting the market.

The tariffs, introduced after the launch of a probe in October, come on top of already existing duties of 10 percent.

The combined tariffs are close to the 50 percent mark that research provider Rhodium Group has estimated would be necessary for the EU to curb Chinese EV imports.

But they also risk setting the EU on the path of a trade war with China, according to Rene Toender, an independent strategic adviser to the car industry in Scandinavia.

So far, Beijing has called the EU tariff hikes a “typical case of protectionism” and said, “China will take all necessary measures to firmly safeguard its legitimate rights and interests.”

At the same time, leading up to the EU announcement of the duties, the China Passenger Car Association described a hypothetical 20 percent tariff hike on Chinese EVs as “understandable” given the auto sector’s role as a major employer in Europe.

The auto industry provides about 13.8 million jobs in the EU, about 6 percent of all jobs in the bloc.

In the US, about 9.7 million jobs, roughly 5 percent of private sector employment, depend on the industry.

The EU Commission has raised tariffs on Chinese EVs [Yves Herman/Reuters] (Reuters)

Toender said the EU has felt compelled to address a growing fear that the success of Chinese EVs could come at the expense of European jobs.

“At the same time, the success of national car brands is a source of national pride in some countries,” Toender Al Jazeera. “So, it would be a hard hit to see them lose out to Chinese manufacturers.”

Apart from risking Chinese retaliation, the US and EU measures also threaten to undermine efforts to lower carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change.

The US government plans to end government purchases of fossil fuel cars by 2035, while several US states including California intend to end the sale of gasoline-only vehicles by the same year.

The EU intends to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars across the bloc from the same date.

Toender said such goals will be unattainable without open access to the Chinese EV industry since the EU accounts for less than 10 percent of global battery output, while China supplies about 76 percent.

“There isn’t sufficient battery capacity elsewhere to replace the Chinese production,” Toender said.

“So, the global expansion of the Chinese EV industry in the near future could very well be decided by how the West chooses to weigh its climate targets against minimising its EV imports from China.”

Meanwhile, Beijing is positioning the EV industry as a key plank of China’s future economic development, according to Kasper Ingeman Beck, a postdoctoral scholar of China’s political economy and state-led green transition at Copenhagen Business School.

In 2015, the Chinese government highlighted “new energy vehicles” as a key industry for securing the country’s prosperity under its “Made in China 2025” national industrial plan.

“The Chinese Communist Party now sees a narrow window of 10-15 years during which Beijing can take advantage of and shape ground-breaking new technological transformations that they see as the only option for lifting the country from a middle-income country to a high-income country,” Beck told Al Jazeera.

“They have pursued this through an investment-oriented economic model where politically chosen industries have received massive financial support.”

The Chinese government has highlighted ‘new energy vehicles’ as key drivers of future economic growth.

On the EV front, this focus has resulted in the creation of a crowded field of Chinese EV manufacturers pumped up on public money – which the Chinese economy is unlikely to be able to support in the long run, according to industry adviser Toender.

“So right now Chinese car companies are engaged in a brutal fight to the death over who remains standing a few years from now,” he said. “As a result, we are seeing Chinese manufacturers rapidly releasing new EV models, constantly innovating and slashing prices.”

Fierce competition combined with overinvestment have contributed to Chinese car companies currently manufacturing between 5 and 10 million excess vehicles a year.

“Many end up as exports as an unintended consequence of the investment-led economic model, not by design,” Beck said.

Toender said that the Chinese government is likely not actively trying to flood Western markets with excess EVs.

“That would result in an even larger outcry and force Western lawmakers to shut the Chinese manufacturers out of the market for good,” he said. “Instead, the Chinese EVs that we do see making it to the European market are being priced much higher than at the cutthroat prices back in China.”

In some countries, BYD charges two or three times the price for some models compared with China.

Toender said that is a sign that Beijing is not looking to make a quick profit, but to establish Chinese companies in the market long-term.

In Copenhagen, Berner said his test drive of the BYD Seal left him feeling underwhelmed.

“It is where it needs to be, but it doesn’t wow,” he said, adding that many Chinese EVs are less fine-tuned to drive than their European peers. “So, there is generally some room for improvement there.”

Still, Berner has little doubt that Chinese manufacturers will be able to iron out such niggles over time.

Despite the pressures facing Chinese EVs, he is convinced that Chinese EVs will become an increasingly common sight on European roads.

“And I think we will eventually come to accept Chinese EVs.”

Source: Al Jazeera