German industry demands tougher line on "partner and competitor" China




FILE PHOTO: The new Volkswagen CC is displayed during a media preview of the Auto China 2018 motor show in Beijing
FILE PHOTO: The new Volkswagen CC is displayed during a media preview of the Auto China 2018 motor show in Beijing  

By Michael Nienaber

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's influential BDI industry association has called on the European Union to adopt a tougher policy towards China and urged companies to reduce their dependence on the Chinese market as concerns mount over price dumping and technology transfer.

The tougher tone is the latest sign that policymakers and business managers in Europe are becoming increasingly worried about China as a competitor and its state-driven economic model.

In a paper presented on Thursday, the BDI stressed that German firms need China as a market, but sounded the alarm about Beijing's reluctance to open up access and made 54 demands to Berlin and Brussels to help.

"Beijing should in its own interests further open its domestic market and properly implement its long-announced economic reforms," BDI President Dieter Kempf said.

The paper, first reported by Reuters in October, called for the EU to create a stronger economic framework for its own internal market to bind firms from non-market economies to its own liberal economic system.

"For the EU, it is more important than ever not only to spell out the importance of its own system and values internally but also to offensively represent them externally," said the BDI.

Among its demands are toughening up EU subsidy rules. Non-European firms that receive state subsidies should not be able to sell their products in the bloc without restrictions. It also called for more EU investment in infrastructure and innovation.

As Germany's main business lobby group, the BDI's views carry weight and feed into government policy decisions.

The Economy Ministry welcomed BDI's call to make German and European companies more competitive, but it also said that any differences with China must be solved through dialogue.

"China and Germany have very close and advantageous trade relations that allow us to address unequal rules of competition for our companies in the respective markets in a continuous dialogue process," an economy ministry spokeswoman said.

"At the same time, we are increasingly looking to better protect and strengthen sensitive German and European business sectors from state-run strategic overseas acquisitions."

Germany last month agreed new rules to lower the threshold for screening and even blocking purchases of stakes in German firms by non-Europeans, in a move to fend off unwanted takeovers by Chinese investors in strategic areas.


PARTNER AND COMPETITOR

Bilateral trade between Germany and China hit a record 187 billion euros in 2017, almost 30 percent of total EU trade with the Asian giant. Some of the country's biggest companies, including Volkswagen and BMW, rely heavily on the rapidly-growing market.

The BDI paper, entitled "Partner and Systemic Competitor - How to cope with China's state-driven economic model?", stresses that China remains an important market.

"Nonetheless, it is generally sensible for the German industry to maintain diversified trade relations and make investment decisions," it said.

"Too much dependence on a single market always involves political and economic risks that must be minimized."

However, not everyone agrees that taking a tougher stance against China is the best strategy.

Germany's DIHK Chambers of Industry and Commerce, which estimates that some 900,000 jobs in Germany depend on exports to China, cautioned against more confrontation.

"The BDI position paper on China brings another tone into the debate," DIHK economist Volker Treier said. "But we always have to keep in mind that China is our most important trading partner. So every word should be weighed carefully."

Those close ties were illustrated by Volkswagen's plan to invest billions of dollars in electric vehicle technology over the next few years, part of a $300 billion surge by global automakers with nearly half of the money targeted at China.

"The future of Volkswagen will be decided in the Chinese market," said Herbert Diess, chief executive of VW, which has decades-old joint ventures with two of China's largest automakers.


(Reporting by Michael Nienaber; Additional reporting by Madeline Chambers and Reinhard Becker; Editing by Toby Chopra and Catherine Evans)

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