On a Collision Course: China’s Existential Threat to America’s Auto Industry and its Route Through Mexico



Matthew McMullan, Scott Paul, Cathalijne Adams, Scott Boos, & Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch | Alliance for American Manufacturing

A Bad Bargain

The introduction of cheap Chinese autos – which are so inexpensive because they are backed with the power and funding of the Chinese government – to the American market could end up being an extinction-level event for the U.S. auto sector, whose centrality in the national economy is unimpeachable.


The U.S. auto sector accounts for 3% of America’s GDP. It is annually responsible for tens of billions of dollars of annual research and development spending. It supports an entire ecosystem of manufacturers, from steelmaking to semiconductor fabrication. And for nearly a century, it has provided reliable, well-compensated employment for millions of American workers of various levels of educational attainment, making it a pillar of the American middle class. As such, the U.S. auto industry’s health has been the years-long focus of U.S. trade policy, and a more recent focus of U.S. industrial policy. This includes longstanding tariffs on imported light trucks, and more recent rules of origin (ROO) content requirements for vehicle imports from Mexico and Canada, as well as clean vehicle consumer tax credits that reward domestic production as U.S. automakers undertake an industry-wide pivot to the manufacture of EVs.

The U.S. auto sector and its extensive domestic supply chain, however, face a growing threat from Chinese competitors, buoyed by the Chinese state. While direct imports of Made in China automobiles have until now been extremely limited, China’s auto sector is hardly the uncompetitive laggard of decades past. Thanks to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) industrial planning and generous assistance that began in the wake of the 2009 financial crisis, its state-owned and state-supported manufacturers are poised to dominate the burgeoning global EV market. China is estimated to have spent tens of billions of dollars to create an auto sector ready to take advantage of the clean energy shift, with support including tax breaks, favorable lines of credit, land use agreements, extremely limited import competition, and often direct subsidization. Chinese automakers have also benefited from mandatory joint ventures with and forced technology transfers from foreign firms seeking to gain access to the vast Chinese auto market. And, most egregiously, they benefit from the use of forced labor in their supply chains.

The state support has paid off. The Chinese auto industry’s growth has been exponential. The country became the world’s leading auto exporter in 2023, selling cars in Europe, Australia, Africa, Mexico and Southeast Asia, and Chinese automakers lead the world in EV production and sales by wide margins. China’s technological lead and its extensive supply chains, particularly for critical battery raw materials and components, are deep and secure because of its defined and deliberate industrial policies. Beijing has prioritized reducing dependencies on other countries, which in turn makes the world increasingly dependent on its own supply chains.

The CCP’s objective is no secret: Global market dominance, made explicit in economic blueprints like Made In China 2025 and China’s most recent Five Year Plan. And the results of China’s industrial bets – mammoth entities like BYD, SAIC Motor and battery maker CATL – are this effort’s champions. They are expanding rapidly, without consideration to supply and demand and basic market forces, so much that the Chinese auto sector is estimated to have a production overcapacity of millions of vehicles per year. That overcapacity is now facing outward, in search of new markets to soak up the largesse.

China’s automakers currently face significant barriers to entry into some western markets, including the United States. The European Union in 2023 began an investigation into the raft of subsidies that underpin Chinese auto exports’ competitiveness, while U.S. tariffs have successfully kept these cars, electric or otherwise, off American highways.

But Chinese automakers are not idle. BYD, which became the world’s largest EV manufacturer in 2023, is building a factory in the heart of the European Union and is among half a dozen Chinese companies preparing to manufacture in Thailand, thereby gaining access to nearby markets through regional trade pacts.

More alarming, however, are Chinese firms’ heavy spending on plants in Mexico, through which they can access the United States by way of the more favorable tariffs under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). This strategy is, in effect, an effort to gain backdoor access to American consumers by circumventing existing policies that are keeping China’s autos out of the U.S. market.

This is an auto industry backed by the Chinese state. It has invested heavily in foreign markets in order to access more of them. And there is cause for alarm that Chinese vehicles and parts will only increase their access to the U.S. market, overcoming existing tariffs and evading existing trade enforcement measures, to directly challenge domestic automakers and threaten the jobs of millions of American manufacturing workers.

The United States must adopt a proactive and evolving strategy to stymie the CCP’s penetration. Washington should raise tariffs further on Made in China vehicles, tighten and fully enforce the USMCA’s ROO so they are not allowed to leak in, and exclude from the pact’s preferential treatment components and vehicles made by companies headquartered in non-market economies like China. Washington must strictly enforce its own industrial policies, like the clean vehicle tax credits included in the Inflation Reduction Act, so that upstream content and raw materials from China do not benefit. Washington also must fully implement and enforce the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act to keep goods and inputs produced in the Chinese police state of Xinjiang and by other oppressed minority ethnic groups out of the U.S. market, so that none of this content reaches American consumers.

The threat posed to the American auto industry by heavily subsidized Chinese imports is significant, and the level of its severity will depend greatly on how federal policymakers respond to it. A dedicated and concerted effort to turn those imports back requires greatly strengthened trade enforcement and fully implementing existing domestic industrial policies. This effort should be undertaken immediately; there is no time to lose.


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