HONG KONG – U.S. companies counting on China for a major part of their growth have targets on their backs as Beijing and Washington ratchet up trade-war tensions.
President Donald Trump’s decision to blacklist Huawei Technologies Co., the Chinese maker of smartphones, while also threatening bans on other Chinese technology companies, could open the door to retaliation against U.S. brands from hotels to sportswear to even Captain America. State media last week said China is “well armed to deliver counterpunches,” without giving specific details.
As companies await China’s next move, there is uncertainty about what form retaliation might take. Companies might “just have to read the tea leaves on how their business operations are being treated,” Erin Ennis, senior vice president of the U.S.-China Business Council, said in an interview on Saturday.
China could use the template it honed in 2017 when relations with South Korea deteriorated over Seoul’s decision to deploy a missile shield. The government curbed travel to South Korea, hurting cosmetics companies that rely on Chinese tourists, while local authorities shut most of Lotte Shopping Co.’s China stores, alleging fire safety violations. Consumers boycotted South Korean products, dealing a devastating blow to Hyundai Motor Co.’s sales.
There’s a lot at stake, as China’s fast-growing consumer market is a top priority for U.S. giants looking for growth in a slowing global economy. Here’s a look at the most vulnerable American companies with heavy exposure to the country:
The most obvious target is Huawei’s smartphone rival Apple Inc., which gets about a fifth of its revenue from China and manufactures its iPhones there. The Cupertino, California-based company has already been suffering in the region, seeing sliding revenue as consumers buy more phones from Huawei and other local brands.
Blowback from Trump’s Huawei ban could cost Apple about 3 percent to 5 percent of its iPhone sales in China over the next 12 to 18 months, according to Dan Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities.
Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, took the high ground in an interview with Bloomberg Television, saying China shouldn’t punch Apple. If that does happen, the billionaire added, “I’ll be the first to protest.”
Despite trade wars and a slowing economy, “the huge story still is China,” according to the world’s largest hotelier. Marriott International Inc. will open more than 30 hotels in China this year and has more than 300 new hotels planned for the country — more than half of its total in the Asia-Pacific region.
Yet the Bethesda, Maryland-based company is no stranger to Chinese political risk. It apologized last year after violating a government taboo by listing both Tibet and Taiwan as separate countries on its website. Marriott also was the victim in November of one of the biggest corporate hacks in history, with media reports saying it may have been the work of an intelligence-gathering operation by China’s government.
Craig Smith, president of Marriott International Asia Pacific, noted in February that while retaliation is a possibility, almost all its hotels are managed and owned by Chinese, making the case that it’s an American brand run as a Chinese company in the country.
China is an increasingly important market for Nike Inc., which sponsors the Shanghai Marathon and the top Chinese soccer league. In the quarter ended in February, Greater China revenue soared 24 percent, the 19th consecutive quarter of double-digit gains.
“We have great momentum in China,” Chief Financial Officer Andrew Campion said in a call with analysts. “Even amidst current geopolitical dynamics, Nike continues to deliver strong and sustainable growth in China.”
Nike’s position in China is far from secure, as consumers can easily switch to local rivals like Anta Sports Products Ltd., which last year agreed to a $5.2 billion deal to buy Finnish company Amer Sports Oyj. By 2022, Anta will likely pass Nike as China’s second-largest seller of athletic clothing, after Adidas AG, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.
China’s regulator has eased restrictions on drugs from overseas, and few companies have benefited more than Merck & Co. Its HPV vaccine Gardasil and cancer drug Keytruda in the first quarter of the year helped fuel a 58 percent leap in China sales to $725 million.
“We believe that we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of the opportunity in key markets such as China where we are seeing significant growth,” Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Frazier said in April.
But even a company that sells life-saving drugs is vulnerable to government pressure in China, where local producers are working on vaccines and treatments of their own. “The heightened U.S.-China trade war may prompt preferential treatment of domestically developed products,” Bloomberg Intelligence analysts Cinney Zhang and Sam Fazeli wrote in a May 23 note.
The government has additional leverage over Merck, since the company wants Keytruda added to the national drug reimbursement list. Getting on the list remains key to unlocking opportunity, according to Zhang and Fazeli.
Captain America and Iron Man have big fans in Beijing. Marvel Entertainment’s “Avengers: Endgame” has generated Chinese ticket sales of more than $600 million since its April debut, making it the country’s highest-grossing foreign film ever.
There are plans for future projects for the franchise in the region. Walt Disney Co.-owned Marvel on May 20 announced a partnership with Beijing-based NetEase Inc. to create games, TV shows and other products. There’s also room to build “very ambitious” Marvel attractions at Shanghai Disneyland, Disney CEO Bob Iger told analysts earlier this month.
Disney needs the state’s cooperation to gain access to the market, though. The government limits the number of Hollywood movies it allows into Chinese cinemas, and it’s stoking nationalist sentiments with films like “Advance Wave Upon Wave,” which depicts Red Army heroism around the time of the Long March during the Chinese Civil War.
China is now the world’s biggest auto market, but U.S. carmakers are already under pressure there, with Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas saying some firms “may be operating in China on borrowed time.”
Sales of American cars in China fell 28 percent in the 12 months ending March, more than double the 12 percent decline in the overall market for passenger cars. General Motors Co. reported China income for the first quarter of the year of $400 million, a decline of $200 million from a year earlier.
If Chinese consumers decide to use their wallets as trade-war weapons, the impact could be even more severe. Bloomberg Intelligence estimates the political tensions could cost GM and Ford Motor Co. as much as half of their sales in China.
Past conflicts offer a lesson on the potential damage. The backlash from the Seoul missile dispute upended Hyundai’s business, and the company was forced to curtail production as sales in the country plunged more than 30 percent in 2017 from a year earlier.
In a separate instance, a territorial spat with Japan flared up in 2012, resulting in nationalist crowds ransacking a Toyota Motor Corp. dealership and setting fire to a Panasonic Corp. factory.
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