Behind China’s new-energy overcapacity as it changes the face of manufacturing and raises the stakes of competitiveness

Wang’s supercharged confidence is rooted in China’s leadership prioritising growth of the new-energy sector, which includes electric vehicles (EVs), lithium-ion batteries and solar panels – known as the “new three” sectors, as they represent a shift away from China’s “old three” pillars of exports that comprised clothing, home appliances and furniture.

Companies will continue to invest and explore more markets. Otherwise it will be hard to survive

Wang Rongshuo, Guangdong Yangshuo Green Technology
“Tech breakthroughs in new energy are crucial for China’s national security,” said Wang, the founder of Guangdong Yangshuo Green Technology, based in China’s southern manufacturing hub. His sentiment echoes that of Chinese leaders who have been hammering home the importance of cultivating quality new “productive forces” at a time when post-pandemic headwinds and bilateral disputes have had an outsized impact on the nation’s economic growth.

However, concerns have been piling up that rapid growth in the “new three” sectors appears unsustainable, as overcapacity has reared its head across the related manufacturing sectors while domestic demand is still weak.

“In early 2023, aggregate capacity utilisation dropped below 75 per cent for the first time since the worst point of China’s last overcapacity cycle in 2016, with a slight rebound since,” Rhodium Group analysts said in a report on March 26.

Numbers like these have served to incentivise firms like Wang’s to look abroad while still expanding at home.

“Before the country can achieve breakthroughs in clean energy and cut its dependence on fossil fuels, many companies will continue to invest and explore more markets. Otherwise, it will be hard to survive if they rely on only the domestic market,” Wang explained, adding that he plans to explore the Mexican market this year.

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Yangshuo Green Technology offers a raft of services, including large-scale constructions of new-energy plants, as well as installation teams that specialise in photovoltaics, energy storage, wind-energy infrastructure integration and other new-energy fields.

In 2020, Wang’s company had a cumulative installed capacity of 1.1 gigawatts, or 5.2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, equivalent to the power generated by 2 million tonnes of coal. Since then, those numbers have respectively increased to 3.6 gigawatts, 102 billion kilowatt-hours, and 88.9 million tonnes.

Meanwhile, Rhodium Group warned that capacity utilisation rates for silicon wafers in China fell to 57 per cent in 2022 from 78 per cent in 2019, while production of lithium-ion batteries reached 1.9 times the volume of domestically installed ones.

Beijing is also facing strong pushback from the United States and the European Union, which have repeatedly raised concerns that their domestic companies have been squeezed out by low-priced Chinese products that have flooded in as manufacturers see overseas markets as the means to help them absorb excess capacity.

“This sets China, the EU and the US on a dangerous course of trade confrontation in 2024, with a high probability of trade-defence action cases,” Rhodium’s analysts said.


‘Overtaking on a bend’: how China’s EV industry charged ahead to dominate the global market

‘Overtaking on a bend’: how China’s EV industry charged ahead to dominate the global market

Meanwhile, no other country has been producing and installing as many new-energy generators as China, which has said it added nearly 217 gigawatts of photovoltaic capacity in 2023 – almost two-and-a-half times as much as in 2022 and accounting for more than half of the world’s new photovoltaic capacity.

Those numbers have vastly exceeded domestic demand. And they are among the examples of why Chinese leaders recently acknowledged that “overcapacity in some industries” was a major economic challenge to tackle in 2024.

“Capital, technology and talent are pouring into these industries. While receiving a big boost and seeing fast progress, exceptionally fierce competition is also under way. A large number of enterprises are set to fall in the next year or two, but this is a normal phenomenon, we all believe,” said Arnold Dou, a veteran engineer with inside knowledge of the new-energy industry.

He also noted how China’s EV manufacturers are engaged in a price war and frequently update their models, which he said helps cultivate the rapid development of other industries.

Compounding their conundrum, the upcoming US presidential election has resulted in leading candidates embracing the long-held bipartisan practice of appearing tough on China with no shortage of political grandstanding.

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President Joe Biden said in late February: “China’s policies could flood our market with its vehicles, posing risks to our national security.” And he said “unprecedented action” was being taken.
Former US president Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate for November’s election, also said in a campaign speech earlier this month that he would impose a 100 per cent tariff on Chinese cars made in Mexico. And he has said that more tariffs of up to 60 per cent would be imposed on Chinese products if he were re-elected.

Meanwhile, the EU is likely to impose retroactive tariffs following its anti-subsidy probe into China’s exports of electric vehicles. The EU’s commissioner for competition, Margrethe Vestager, said the bloc was “absolutely willing to use” its suite of trade tools to combat unfair competition from China.

Stephen Olson, a senior fellow at the Pacific Forum and a visiting lecturer at the Yeutter Institute of International Trade and Finance, said: “The EU will march to the beat of its own drummer and will not see any compelling reason to follow the US lead. It is fair to say, however, that the EU is growing increasingly comfortable with a more assertive approach to China’s trade practices.”

“When and where it suits its interests, the EU will seek to coordinate with the US on China trade policy, but the desire for a more confrontational stance is still not as advanced in the EU as it is in the US,” he added.

The US Department of Commerce has placed import duties on solar-panel makers that finish products in Southeast Asia to avoid tariffs on made-in-China goods, and Washington has barred EV battery materials from China as a “foreign entity of concern”.

“Strong measures such as revoking the permanent normal trade relations [PNTR] status, or introducing a new tariff column for China, are already on the radar of US politicians during the election year,” Rhodium said. The PNTR is a legal designation in the US for free trade with a foreign nation.

China’s domestic manufacturing imbalance could also compel a response from a broader set of countries, and if the situation continues, China may face intensified pushback from emerging markets, including Mexico and Brazil, Rhodium warned.

Tariffs imposed on Chinese products since the US-China trade war began in 2018 have had a limited impact on Chinese exports, but tech-containment moves under the Biden administration have dealt an impactful blow to Chinese trade with the US, said He Weiwen, a senior fellow with the Centre for China and Globalisation, a Beijing-based think tank.

Nonetheless, he said, “here is still a need for China to employ preventive tactics for the rainy days if Trump returns to power”.

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However, Zha Daojiong, a professor with the School of International Studies at Peking University, cautioned that “it would be unwise for China to match either US or EU policies towards it”.

“The past few years have shown that China, as a market, can be effectively replaced. A matching game will only accelerate the trend, which is harmful to China’s desire to avoid falling into a ‘middle-income trap’, which is arguably already discernible,” he added. “At the end of the day, it is an economy’s capacity to adjust to the ever-shifting and multidirectional flows of resources around the world that matter most.”

Along with many of his peers, Wang is acutely aware of overcapacity issues and is embracing an industrial reshuffle while looking for new opportunities to survive an upstream price war.

It means bigger profit margins for downstream participants, which would lead to a greater willingness to invest, he said.

“For example, a project that originally required 38 million in funding can now be started with only 30 million because component prices have dropped significantly. This will lead to more projects on the ground, such as in photovoltaic or wind power,” Wang said, speaking in yuan terms.

Everyone’s goal is to be able to survive so they can catch the next round of energy breakthroughs

Wang Rongshuo

A business executive in the semiconductor sector who spoke on condition of anonymity said China would be more capable of countering external pressure if it is able to utilise a higher proportion of renewable energy in its overall energy consumption.

“For China’s new-energy industry, the tipping point will be when all links in the industrial chain are cheap enough, by which time China will have established absolute advantages,” he said.

According to analysts at Wood Mackenzie, a provider of data and analytics for the world’s energy transition, China’s solar-production costs plummeted by 42 per cent last year, which was a much greater cost decline than was seen by Indian, European, and American manufacturers.

From where Wang stands, Chinese companies and investors are looking to seize upon those falling prices by scaling up production capacity, like his firm is doing.

“Everyone’s goal is to be able to survive so they can catch the next round of energy breakthroughs,” he added. “If China’s new-energy installations, including in its northwest region, are enough to meet national demand over the next 10 to 15 years, what [external pressure] will there be to worry about?”

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