Thanks to its armada of electric vehicle manufacturers, China dethroned Japan as the world's leading automobile exporter last year, data published Wednesday by the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (Jama) confirmed. Japanese manufacturers exported 4.42 million cars, trucks and buses in 2023 (16%), according to Jama. Chinese automobile exports represented 4.91 million units last year (57.9%) according to the Chinese Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM), or even 5.22 million units according to Chinese customs (57%), according to data released earlier this month. The conquest of this title by China to the detriment of Japan had been looming for several months. Japan was the world's largest automobile exporter since 2017.
The importance of this shift must however be put into perspective, because Japanese manufacturers produce twice as many vehicles in their factories abroad (17 million units in 2022) as in the Japanese archipelago. While Chinese manufacturers still have few factories abroad. This trend should evolve: the Chinese champion of electric cars BYD - which became the world number one in electric vehicles ahead of the American Tesla in the fourth quarter of 2023 - is rapidly developing its production abroad as well. BYD, for example, announced at the end of December the construction of a factory in Hungary to target the European market, and it also has similar projects elsewhere in the world, from Southeast Asia to Brazil.
The European Commission opened an investigation last September into alleged illegal subsidies from Beijing to Chinese electric manufacturers, accused of unfair competition by the European automobile industry. The spectacular surge in Chinese automobile exports “leads to trade tensions” reminiscent of those of Western countries with Japan in the 1980s, commented CLSA analyst Christopher Richter a few months ago.
Also the current situation of the Chinese automobile industry is not tenable in the medium term, because its manufacturers will be pushed to produce massively in their foreign markets, like the Japanese from the 1980s, according to him.