New cars are displayed at a Volkswagen Group's media event ahead of the Beijing Auto Show in Beijing, China, April 24, 2018.
New cars are displayed at a Volkswagen Group's media event ahead of the Beijing Auto Show in Beijing, China, April 24, 2018.

The U.S.-China trade war has not spared European companies in China. More than one-third of them are feeling a direct impact on their businesses and fear the situation will worsen in the coming weeks.

“They [European companies] are feeling more anxious than they felt last year, rising tensions such as the trade tensions that we are facing currently that don’t seem to be on the point of being sorted out quickly,” European Chamber Vice President Charlotte Roule told VOA.

The trade conflict has come on top of several other problems faced by European companies in China.

“Macroeconomic challenges such as the Chinese economic slowdown and global economic slowdown are worrying them,” Roule said.

In a survey conducted last January and released Monday, the European Chamber of Commerce in China reported the trade war has impacted 25% of its members engaged in U.S.-bound exports from their operations in China.  

Since January, the United States has since expanded its tariff measures against China-made goods, while Beijing has announced its own set of retaliatory measures. These moves would affect a larger number of European companies, including those that import products from the U.S.

Significantly, the survey showed that only five percent of the chamber’s member companies see the trade tussle as an opportunity for themselves.

Intertwined relations

The trade war involves two countries at the political level, but has impacted other businesses with overlapping interests and intertwined connections across regions and industry segments.

Nick Marro, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, cited the example of China-based joint ventures between European and China companies engaged in producing electronic components. They will be hit by Washington’s decision to raise taxes on goods made in China. Similarly, U.S.-based European companies exporting to China would be affected.

“Trade wars are very complicated. You can't isolate these effects to one or two countries,” Marro said.

The extent of the trade war's impact varies from one industry sector to another, said Jacob Gunter, the chamber’s policy and communications coordinator.  But Gunter said there is considerable fear that the impact might prove to be widespread and severe.

“European companies share many of the U.S.’ concerns, but strongly oppose the blunt use of tariffs,” according to the chamber.

The trade war was ranked fourth among the concerns of European companies when the survey was taken last January. But the companies were more concerned about the economic slowdown in China and the world, besides the rising labor cost in China.

“European firms confront the same challenges facing their U.S. rivals, such as local protectionism or burdensome administrative processes. And developments in the trade war to date have yielded little immediate progress on these issues,” said Marro.

Even without the trade war, European companies face considerable difficulties due largely to regulatory controls and inadequate implementation of market access rules made by the central government in Beijing.

Chamber members presented a bleak outlook of the business situation in China in the coming years.  About 47% of those surveyed said they expect regulatory obstacles to actually increase in the next five years.

The survey reported that business optimism on growth over the next two years dropped from 62% in 2018 to 45% in 2019.

Joining hands

Analysts said China will increasingly try to woo the European Union and its markets in order to protect itself from aggressive U.S. trade actions.  But the bloc is undecided on what stance to take, because any move in favor of China would not be lauded in Washington.

“The EU is kind of in a difficult position. People are pushing the EU to choose the U.S. or China. I think the EU is choosing the EU,” Gunter said. "The EU is taking necessary measures to protect its own interest and expand business relations with China," he said.

“There is an opportunity for China and the EU to work together. As far as the trade conflict is concerned, it should try to mediate the conflict, instead of taking sides,” he said.

European companies said there is no sign of the Chinese government trying to make life easier for them, even after battling the United States in the trade conflict for 10 months.

Last January, most European companies told surveyors they have not changed their strategy owing to the trade war. But analysts said many of them will have to rethink the way they do business.

“European companies will seek to minimize their exposure to political risk by adopting their global supply chains, said Max Zenglein, head of economic research at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin.

“Export-oriented businesses, in particular at the lower end of the value chain, are likely to shift to other Southeast Asian nations. This is, however, a process that takes time,” he said.