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Germany frets over its corporate dependency on China

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Germany’s carmakers cannot believe their good fortune. Chinese consumers have ridden to their rescue again, a decade after pulling them out of a hole following the financial crisis.

“It’s almost too good to be true,” Ola Kallenius, chief executive of Daimler, said last month as he cheered a 23 per cent increase in sales in China in the third quarter. Prevented by coronavirus from taking an expensive foreign holiday, wealthy Chinese have been splashing out on luxury S-Class Mercedes cars instead.

Robust Chinese demand has helped Germany’s auto manufacturers and their suppliers to offset weaker European and US markets still afflicted by the pandemic. But it has also revived concerns that German industry is too dependent on China. And it has raised questions about whether Berlin will be willing to respond to growing pressure in the EU for a stronger line towards Beijing and to embrace a new transatlantic partnership on China under a Biden administration.

Daimler, which has two large Chinese shareholders, sells nearly 30 per cent of its Mercedes cars in China. It accounts for about 11 per cent of group revenues. For several companies in the Dax 30 index, China represents at least a fifth of sales including BMW, chipmaker Infineon and plastics manufacturer Covestro. Likewise, Volkswagen is estimated to generate a similar proportion of its sales in the country last year, selling nearly 40 per cent of its vehicles there.

China is now the most important car market worldwide, said Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management. It is also a testing ground for autonomous driving, electric vehicles and other technologies.

“But I’m also worried that the dependency of German auto manufacturers in China is too high,” Professor Bratzel added.

Even chancellor Angela Merkel, who has stuck religiously to her faith that western powers can shape China’s conduct through trade and investment, last month urged German businesses to diversify and build up other export markets in Asia.

German carmakers are particularly susceptible to Chinese pressure. Operating multiple factories — VW has 26 in China — requires the goodwill of the authorities. VW has been embarrassingly circumspect about its plant in Xinjiang, the region where the Muslim Uighur population is being repressed. Desirable brands make for an easy target for any consumer backlash. China’s ambassador to Berlin last year issued a thinly veiled threat that German marques would be at risk if the Federal Republic bowed to US pressure and banned Huawei from its 5G telecoms network.

The pandemic has accentuated the dilemma for Europe of reconciling its economic dependence on the Chinese market with its desire for greater geopolitical autonomy, said Nils Redeker and Anna Stahl, in a report for Berlin’s Hertie School. But, they added, the idea of dependence should not be overplayed. Even after 15 years of booming trade, China still accounts for only 8 per cent of German exports while Germany takes in 5 per cent of China’s.

Max Zenglein, chief economist of the Mercator Institute for China Studies, says in a new paper that dependence cuts both ways. Europe is, he adds, an important provider of foreign investment and job creation in China. It is also a large market for Chinese exporters and a vital source of technical knowhow, particularly in advanced machinery, at which Germany excels. Beijing may be trying to reduce its reliance on foreign industrial technology but it “remains a difficult, costly and time-consuming effort”.

Mr Zenglein argues a “growing perception of dependence has enabled China’s government to instil in Europe the assumption that friendly political relations are necessary for good economic relations”. Chinese commercial retaliation in Europe is rare. But the possibility had created “pre-emptive obedience” in the boardrooms and chancelleries of Europe, he added.

That may be particularly true of the car industry, which is also fighting a bigger battle for technological survival. But in other sectors, the mood has hardened.

Asked about Hong Kong in an interview in July with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Nicola Leibinger-Kammüller, chief executive of family-owned machine tool maker Trumpf, said: “Beijing is pursuing the goal of gradually conquering the west and is proceeding very systematically.

“It is negligent that we as Europeans do little to counter this. However, withdrawing from China is not an option.” Not much pre-emptive obedience there.

ben.hall@ft.com



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China lands spacecraft on Mars

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China has landed a spacecraft containing a rover on Mars, according to state media, in a further sign of its bold ambitions in the sphere.

The rover was part of the Tianwen-1 unmanned mission launched in July last year. Tianwen means “questions to heaven” and was named after a poem by Chinese poet Qu Yuan.

The mission, which was described by Chinese media as a “new major milestone” and the “first step in China’s planetary exploration of the solar system”, was intended to match the US by successfully landing on the red planet.

The Global Times reported that the lander and the rover from the Tianwen-1 probe reached a plain on Mars called Utopia Planitia on early Saturday morning local time, citing information from the China National Space Administration.

The Tianwen-1 probe’s lander and rover separated with the orbiter at about 4am, after which it had a three hour flight before entering Mars’ atmosphere, according to the newspaper.

The spacecraft then “spent around nine minutes decelerating, hovering for obstacle avoidance and cushioning, before its soft landing”. The rover is named Zhurong after a Chinese god of fire, and is 1.85m and weighs 240kg. It is expected to transverse the planet for about 92 days.

The probe was launched into space on July 23 by the Long March 5 rocket from the Wenchang launch pad in Hainan province, in the south of the country.

The achievement of the Mars landing is part of a wider expansion of China’s space programme. The country’s engineers launched the first part of its permanent space station into the Earth’s orbit late last month.

In 2018, China for the first time launched more vessels into orbit than any other nation.

The US views China’s efforts in space in strategic terms. “Beijing is working to match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military, economic and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership,” according to the annual threat assessment published by the office of the US director of national intelligence.



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Iron ore sinks from record high on concerns over China crackdown

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The scorching rally that propelled the price of steel-making commodity iron ore to a record high came to a shuddering halt on Friday on concerns China will crack down on speculative activity.

The main iron ore futures contract in Singapore fell as much as 14 per cent to $190 a tonne before recovering to $209, while there were also big drops in China where the most active contract on the Dalian Commodity Exchange slumped almost 8 per cent.

The sell-off came as the local government in Tangshan, China’s main steel-making city, said it would examine illegal behaviour and suspend production at mills found to be manipulating market prices by spreading rumours and hoarding material, according to reports from Reuters and Bloomberg.

“China’s central government seems to be very concerned about this major input for its steel-intensive economy,” said Tom Price, head of commodities strategy at Liberum. “I think what the pullback reflects is the government trying to rein in prices.”

Line chart of $ per tonne showing Iron ore prices have fallen after a strong rally

Authorities in China have sought to cool hot commodity markets, with Premier Li Keqiang calling this week for stable prices. Iron was trading at $90 a tonne a year ago and hit a record high of $230 this week. Tangshan, which accounts for 14 per cent of China’s steel output, has introduced production curbs as part of a crackdown on pollution.

However, these measures have been slow to take effect as mills in the rest of the country have rushed to crank up output to take advantage of reduced capacity in Tangshan and cash in on record domestic steel prices. A decision to remove the export tax rebate for some steel products on June 1 has also led to other mills increasing production.

As a result, China’s steel production hit a record level in March, with output up 19 per cent year on year to 94m tonnes, according to financial group ANZ. The firm said production was even higher in April, with exports up 20 per cent year on year. That in turn boosted iron ore, which climbed 35 per cent over the past month.

“What the Chinese government is trying to do is incrementally contain the steel market, mindful of the fact they have spent a fortune resurrecting their economy over the past 12 months and they don’t want to kill the recovery,” said Price. “The measures are quite clever.”

Iron ore has led a broad advance in commodity markets over the past year, fanning talk that another “supercycle” — a long period of high prices — has arrived.

That has been a boon for big iron producers such as Anglo-Australian company BHP and its Brazilian rival Vale, which require a price of just $50 a tonne to break even.

However, most analysts think the iron ore market will remain tight and prices elevated for the rest of the year. That view is based on rising steel demand outside China as big economies accelerate and while important producers in Australia are operating at full capacity.

“While the price has been thumped in the past couple of days, demand remains robust, helped by the fantastic margins the steel industry is enjoying,” said Andrew Glass, Singapore-based founder of Avatar Commodities.

Elsewhere, copper was set for its first weekly loss in more than a month amid worries that a tightening of credit in China could hit demand for the metal, used in everything from household goods to electric vehicles. Copper, which started the week at $10,412 a tonne, was trading at $10,245 on Friday.



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Biden says ‘strong reason’ to believe pipeline hackers are in Russia

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Joe Biden said the US government has “strong reason” to believe the hackers behind a massive cyber attack that shut the Colonial petroleum pipeline were based in Russia, as he urged Americans to not panic over temporary fuel shortages.

“We do not believe the Russian government was involved in this attack. But we do have strong reason to believe that the criminals who did the attack are living in Russia. That is where it came from,” the US president said in a speech on Thursday afternoon at the White House.

“We have been in direct communication with Moscow about the imperative for responsible countries to take decisive action against these ransomware networks,” he added, noting he hoped to discuss the issue with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.

The 5,500-mile pipeline system has capacity for 2.5m barrels a day of liquid fuels such as petrol diesel and jet fuel, which it carries from Gulf Coast refineries to major hubs in the north-east. The FBI has indicated that the shutdown was caused by a ransomware attack by hacking group DarkSide.

Cyber experts claim Russia tacitly allows ransomware gangs to operate in the country and will not prosecute them. In return, those criminals do not attack Russian companies and can be called upon to share their access to victims’ systems, experts say.

Last month, the US Treasury accused one of Russia’s intelligence services, the FSB, of “cultivating and co-opting” the notorious ransomware group Evil Corp, which has been sanctioned.

The Colonial pipeline — responsible for carrying almost half of the motor fuel used on the US east coast — began the process of fully reopening on Wednesday evening, five days after it was hit by a cyber attack that triggered a spate of panic-buying by motorists across the US south-east.

Biden said the US government expected a “region by region return to normalcy beginning this weekend and continuing into next week”. He urged Americans to avoid panic-buying petrol, and said he had called on state governors and local authorities to keep a lookout for any illegal price gouging by businesses.

“Don’t panic, number one. I know seeing lines at the pumps or gas stations with no gas can be extremely stressful, but this is a temporary situation,” Biden said. “Do not get more gas than you need in the next few days.”

Shortages at filling stations triggered by panic-buying continued on Thursday, with 70 per cent of stations in North Carolina running dry and about half in Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina, according to GasBuddy, a data provider.

The situation in some major urban hubs was beginning to improve, however. The amount of stations without fuel in Atlanta fell from a peak of 73 per cent overnight to 68 per cent by Thursday afternoon.

Colonial on Thursday morning said it had made “substantial progress” in bringing its operations back online and that all of its markets would begin receiving product by the afternoon.

Prices at the pump have continued to rise. National average petrol prices rose to $3.03 on Thursday, according to the AAA, an automobile association. They crossed the $3 a gallon threshold on Wednesday for the first time since 2014.

Gasoline futures retreated on the news of Colonial’s reopening, as traders anticipated supplies returning to normal. Contracts for June delivery slipped 7 cents to $2.08, their lowest level since April in Thursday afternoon trading.



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