In a global landscape marked by trade uncertainties, China is rewriting the export playbook, but it’s not with traditional goods. As the nation’s export engines sputter, the world is witnessing a remarkable surge in Chinese automobiles rolling onto foreign shores. Demand for affordable, gasoline-powered cars, once the staple for Chinese consumers, is now soaring overseas. Surprisingly, the biggest hurdle isn’t demand—it’s a lack of ships equipped to carry them.
Chinese automakers, like nimble chess players, have seized opportunities in Russia, Southeast Asia, Australia, South America, and Mexico. They have set their sights on Europe, but the missing puzzle piece is a fleet of specialized car-carrying ships. Along the Yangtze River, shipyards are constructing colossal vessels that serve as floating parking lots, capable of accommodating 5,000 cars or more.
China’s car industry has become an export powerhouse, with exports skyrocketing 86 percent through July this year, surpassing even Japan. The domestic market, once vibrant, has seen a downturn as real estate prices fell, pushing consumers toward electric vehicles. The result? A glut of gasoline-powered models that are still in demand abroad.
Stuck with unused factory capacity to produce around 15 million gasoline-powered cars annually, Chinese automakers are adapting by sending over four million vehicles abroad this year, offered at bargain prices. “Why have they driven into exports? Because they have to—what are you going to do, close a factory?” ponders Bill Russo, CEO of Automobility.
Around the world, Chinese car manufacturers are gaining market share, thanks to lower steel and electronics costs and government incentives, including free land, low-interest loans, and subsidies. Chinese cars, even those with traditional combustion engines, are impressing global audiences at industry events.
China’s car export juggernaut is rapidly building momentum. Manufacturers like BYD and Chery, along with their shipping partners, have placed orders for nearly all the car-carrying vessels currently under construction worldwide. This marks a significant shift from the past when only a handful of such vessels were ordered annually.
European markets have become the prime focus for Chinese automakers, leveraging brands like Volvo and MG, acquired years ago, to gain acceptance. Notably, British MG cars have re-emerged as top sellers in Australia, thanks to exports from China.
However, there’s a notable omission among leading export destinations—the United States. The enduring tariffs imposed during the Trump era, along with the broad discretion granted to the U.S. trade representative, Katherine Tai, leave Chinese cars with a limited route to American roads.