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The Globalization of China's Auto Parts Industry

Aug 22, 2023

"Going overseas" has also become the choice of more enterprises. Auto parts and accessories going overseas are booming, and the cross-border market welcomes potential opportunities.

As the world's largest auto industry country, China produces one-third of the world's passenger cars. Since 2009, China's annual car production has surpassed that of the European Union, as well as that of the United States and Japan combined. According to the data from the World Association of Automobile Manufacturers, China's automobile production will be 26.08 million in 2021, accounting for 32.5% of the world's total production.

The achievements of domestic automobiles in "going overseas" have attracted attention, and the export of auto parts has become a hot topic in the automotive aftermarket. With a strong industrial foundation, China has also become a major exporter of auto parts.

According to data from China Customs, in 2021, China's auto parts exports to the world will reach US$75.577 billion, a year-on-year increase of 33.76%. Moreover, China's auto parts are not only large in size but also have a complete industrial chain. They are described by the industry as "international models". Almost every kind of car parts can be found in China.

Domestic auto parts sell well overseas, and the export of auto parts has achieved high growth. According to data from the General Administration of Customs, from January to October 2022, the export value of auto parts was 76.59 billion US dollars, an increase of 11.7% year-on-year, accounting for 58.9% of the total export of auto products.

China's automotive industry has experienced phenomenal growth over the past two decades, with annual vehicle sales rising from about 2 million units in 2000 to over 25 million in 2021. This rapid expansion has transformed China into the world's largest auto market, accounting for nearly a third of global car sales. The rise of China's vehicle manufacturing has also enabled the parallel growth of the country's auto parts industry. Chinese auto parts suppliers have scaled up to meet booming demand from domestic automakers. Now, these companies are globalizing through exports, overseas factories, mergers, and acquisitions. The Chinese government has made the auto industry a priority sector for globalization under its Made in China 2025 plan. This policy support, along with the vast size of China's domestic market, has facilitated the expansion of Chinese auto parts companies abroad.

According to data from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, automobile production in China increased 4.4% year-over-year to 26.08 million units in 2021. This output by Chinese automakers is far ahead of the second-largest producer, the United States, which manufactured around 9.7 million light vehicles in 2021. Chinese auto parts suppliers have benefitted enormously from this fast-growing local production. The massive scale of China's vehicle manufacturing has allowed parts makers to reap economies of scale and drive down costs. This competitive strength from immense domestic volume has formed the foundation for Chinese auto parts firms to globalize.

China's exports of auto parts rose steadily over the past decade, from $32.7 billion in 2011 to $89.8 billion in 2021. Key products exported include tires, interiors, electronics, mirrors, steel wheels, and lighting components. These exports often support the overseas assembly plants of Chinese automakers, especially in developing markets. For example, Lifan Motors has set up knockdown assembly facilities across Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, relying on exports of components from affiliated suppliers back home. As Chinese brands expand globally, they pull their trusted domestic parts suppliers along with them.

Chinese auto parts companies are also localizing production by building more manufacturing plants internationally. For instance, Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, a major supplier of interior parts and solutions, now operates over 120 manufacturing sites and R&D centers across 19 countries. It serves clients including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Stellantis. To support rising production in Hungary, Yanfeng opened a new electronics plant in 2021 and an interior facility in 2022. Such overseas factories located close to automaker clients boost responsiveness and reduce logistics costs.

Strategic mergers and acquisitions have accelerated the global expansion of Chinese auto parts suppliers as well. In 2013, AVIC Automotive Systems acquired Michigan-based vehicle electronic components maker Nexteer Automotive for over $450 million. This instantly gave AVIC an established North American operational base and advanced steering technologies. Ningbo Joyson Electronic, a maker of auto electronics and safety systems, similarly bought Japanese airbag manufacturer Takata for $1.6 billion in 2018 following Takata's bankruptcy. Such deals provide Chinese firms with technology, brands, and customer networks in mature auto markets.

Government policies are also driving the globalization of this industry. The Made in China 2025 plan identifies automotive as one of ten priority sectors, with objectives encompassing improving innovation capabilities, promoting Chinese brands, and enabling global footprint expansion. Local governments provide financial incentives and tax breaks to encourage parts suppliers to establish operations abroad. Beijing realizes that as vehicles become more high-tech and electric, Chinese firms must globalize through ownership of foreign assets to remain competitive.

However, the global expansion of China's auto industry also generates risks and criticisms. Acquisitions of foreign companies by Chinese firms sometimes prompt national security reviews and opposition on the grounds of intellectual property transfer. Critics argue that subsidies from Beijing provide an unfair advantage and allow Chinese companies to overpay for overseas assets. Heightened regulatory scrutiny could constrain the globalization plans of China's auto parts suppliers. Nonetheless, the overall trajectory continues to point towards their increasing international presence.

Despite the disruptions of the global pandemic, auto parts remain one of China's most globalized and internationally competitive industries. Leading Chinese suppliers like Minth, Wanxiang, and Weichai are now among the top 100 auto component manufacturers worldwide by revenue. The emergence of new players focusing on electric vehicle technologies like Contemporary Amperex Technology also highlights the rise of China's capabilities. With the huge scale of its domestic market and policy backing for globalization, China's auto parts industry's influence on the worldwide automotive landscape will only grow in the coming decade.

Among the main export varieties of auto parts, except for the slight decline in the export value of engines, the other three categories of auto parts continued to grow. European and American countries, Australia, and other mainstream white countries have a strong car culture, coupled with expensive labor costs, car owners like to buy spare parts for DIY and car maintenance, and the promotion of cross-border boom has boosted the development of auto parts e-commerce.

In contrast to the intensified domestic auto parts market, many companies, including trading companies and manufacturers, are seeking overseas expansion, selling their products to overseas markets such as the United States, Brazil, Germany, Mexico, Southeast Asia, Africa, and other regions. "Going overseas" has also become the choice of more enterprises. Auto parts and accessories going overseas are booming, and the cross-border market welcomes potential opportunities.