China launches retaliatory investigation into U.S auto subsidies

China has sent yet another public signal that it is unhappy with the U.S. and its trade policy by prepping an investigation into alleged illegal auto subsidies by the U.S. government.  The timing of this announcement puts a spotlight on the bailout of GMAC, the auto financial company which effectively has been nationalized the firm. This may be by intention.

The Financial times reports:

China is preparing to launch a trade investigation into whether US carmakers are being unfairly subsidised by the US government, according to people familiar with the matter.

The move comes at a time of heightened trade tensions between the two countries after the US imposed duties on Chinese tyres last month. Many warned this would prompt Beijing to retaliate.

Few vehicles are actually exported from the US to China, but the move would have symbolic power by turning the tables on Washington.

US labour groups have long accused Beijing of unfairly subsidising its exporters. However, through a “countervailing duties” investigation, China would assess whether the US was open to the same charge. The investigation could lead to import duties.

General Motors and Chrysler have received about $60bn in government bail-out funds, though Ford has received nothing.

Yes, General Motors has a large presence in China and its bailout by the government has an impact on its ability to operate competitively in China. But, because the U.S. does not export many cars to China, one might see this as a strange action on China’s part.  In my view, China is telling us with this action that “what is good for the goose is good for the gander.”

I find this story a bit curious because China already said in September that it would investigate autos and chicken in retaliation for U.S. tariffs on tires. But, we should look at this in a wider context. The US is also angling to get Chinese to revalue renminbi. The Chinese are resistant to this and their actions here can also be seen as a warning to the U.S. that any and all protectionist threats will be met with retaliation.

Elliot Feldman, head of international trade at Baker & Hostetler, the law firm, said his firm warned the USTR last January that the approach the US was taking towards China and other countries over subsidies was dangerous in the light of the US’s own support for carmakers, banks and financial institutions.

“We warned that other countries could apply to the United States the same principles the United States was applying to them,” he said. “Apparently we have arrived.”

The problem with protectionism is not that it can protect sectors, but that it leads to retaliation and escalation. This is now what is beginning to occur.

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