As U.S. Tries to Isolate China, German Companies Move Closer

As Washington seeks to throttle economic ties with Beijing, two powerful engines of the German economy, Volkswagen and the chemical company BASF, are broadening their huge Chinese investments.

Volkswagen, which has more than 40 plants in China, announced a new effort to tailor models to Chinese customers’ wishes, with features like in-dash karaoke machines, and will invest billions in local partnerships and production sites. It’s part of a theme unveiled by the German automaker last year: “In China for China.”

BASF, with 30 production facilities in China, is pushing ahead with plans to spend 10 billion euros ($10.9 billion) on a new chemical production complex that would rival in size its massive headquarters complex in Ludwigshafen, which covers about four square miles.

Throughout Germany, executives are aware such investments run contrary to efforts by the United States to isolate China economically. They counter that revenue from China is essential for their businesses to thrive and grow in Europe.

Martin Brudermüller, BASF’s chief executive, said earnings from China allowed the company to effectively offset losses from Europe’s high energy costs andstringent environmental rules.

“Without the business in China, the necessary restructuring here would not be so possible,” Mr. Brudermüller told reporters at his company’s annual earnings conference in February. “Name me just one investment in Europe where we could make money.”

Executives at Volkswagen privately concede the automaker is in a similar quandary.High energy and labor costs have left the company heavily reliant on sales from China to help underwrite operations in Europe.

BASF, a chemical company, is one of two powerful engines of the German economy.Credit…Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

Now ever-closer business ties are coming under scrutiny in Berlin. For months, at the urging of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a policy proposal has been making the rounds of German ministries aiming to reset the country’s relationship with China, its largest trade partner. The aim is to strike a balance between diversifying Germany’s ties throughout Asia to avoid dependence on Chinese imports, while acknowledging the importance of doing business with China.

The Biden administration has pledged to make the United States more competitive with China by expanding American infrastructure and manufacturing, rather than negotiating new trade deals. German lawmakers and business leaders have made clear that their relationship with China is more nuanced: open to vigorous trade while trying to diversify into other Asian markets.

More on China

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  • Taiwan: China began three days of military exercises around Taiwan in what it called a “stern warning,” after the island’s president met with Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
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It is a policy being developed after a bruising year when Russia shut down natural gas shipments to Germany, a move that reminded lawmakers of the costs of relying on autocratic nations for materials essential to its industrial backbone. In the case of China, a big problem is Germany’s dependence on its imports.

Germany depends on China to provide essential technology products, including mobile phones and LEDs, as well as raw materials, including lithium and rare earth elements. These are critical to Germany’s plans to make a transition to cleaner energy and transportation.

Such a reliance must be carefully considered as Germany thinks strategically about its future dealings with China, said Katrin Kamin, a director of the Kiel Initiative in Geopolitics and Economics. Reducing its ties anytime soon is not a reasonable option.

“Germany will not be able to simply relax its relations with China in the short term,” Ms. Kamin said. “The dependencies are too great for that.”

“Without the business in China, the necessary restructuring here would not be so possible,” Martin Brudermüller, BASF’s chief executive, said at his company’s annual earnings conference.Credit…Ronald Wittek/EPA, via Shutterstock

The European Union has had a bumpier relationship with China. A breakthrough trade and investment deal between the bloc and China, a product of years of talks that was approved in 2020, was shelved less than a year later, after Beijing imposed sanctions on E.U. lawmakers for criticizing China’s treatment of its Uyghur population. The deal would have made it easier for companies to operate on one another’s territory.

Last week, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, traveled to Beijing with President Emmanuel Macron of France as part of an effort to “rebalance” economic ties with China. She called for the revival of talks about trade, but pointed out stumbling blocks like the support China offers its domestic manufacturers and the restrictions it places on foreign companies.

“China is a crucial trade partner, but E.U. businesses face many discriminatory hurdles,” Ms. von der Leyen said after meetings with organizations in Beijing. “European companies have so much to offer China. But they need a level playing field to invest and provide their goods and services.”

She told reporters that the stalled trade deal was not discussed in talks with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, during the trip.

With foreign trade sales of €297.9 billion last year, China has been Germany’s biggest trading partner for seven years in a row. But Germany’s trade deficit with China has grown increasingly lopsided, a trend that worsened during the supply chain disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, imports from China expanded by a third, to €191 billion, while exports grew only 3 percent, to €107 billion.

German automakers sell roughly a third of all vehicles they produce in China, exceeding sales in all of Western Europe.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

One area where Germany has long dominated ties with China is the automobile industry. German automakers, including BMW and Mercedes-Benz, sell roughly a third of all vehicles they produce in China — exceeding sales in all of Western Europe. But recent data shows that Germans appear to be losing their grip on the Chinese market, especially as the popularity of domestically produced electric vehicles surges.

Auto insurance registration records show that only 2.4 percent of all electric vehicles sold in China last year were made by Volkswagen, while BMW and Mercedes failed to crack even 1 percent, according to the German business daily Handelsblatt. By comparison, German brands continue to dominate the Chinese market for combustion engine vehicles, but their popularity is giving way to E.V.s.

Perhaps ominously, Chinese electric brands, such as BYD and Nio, are entering the German market, posing a threat to German automakers on their home territory.

In a clear sign of his priorities, within months of taking over as the chief executive of Volkswagen in September, Oliver Blume spent weeks touring China and returned vowing to strengthen his company’s partnerships there.

“We have to cooperate much more closely with our local partners in order to listen to the customers in the Chinese region,” Mr. Blume told reporters at the company’s annual earning meeting last month. “This will be part of a strategy for 2030.”

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, and President Emmanuel Macron of France met with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, in Beijing last week.Credit…Pool photo by Ludovic Marin

A study by the Kiel Institute showed that decoupling from China would be very costly for all of Europe, but especially Germany, given the strength of its economic ties. Calculations by the institute, based on gross domestic product from 2019, showed that Germany could lose income worth more than €131 billion. And it could be even more if China retaliated.

Berlin would like to avoid another round of the upheaval it experienced after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, leading to an energy war that cost Germany its affordable supply of natural gas. That will mean continuing to balance economic interests with security concerns, Jörg Kukies, an economic adviser to Mr. Scholz, told a gathering of German and American trade leaders.

“We want to have a positive approach to China,” Mr. Kukies said. “Not an anti-China approach.”

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