Is China now the world’s top car exporter? It’s complicated

Editor’s Note: Sign up for CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, which explores what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it impacts the world.

Did China just pull ahead of Japan to become the world’s top car exporter? Beijing clearly thinks so, but Tokyo isn’t quite ready to concede its long-held crown.

“It is a certainty that China has become the world’s largest exporter,” the China Passenger Car Association (CPCA) said last month.

But the answer isn’t that clear-cut and depends on which set of data you use.

According to Japan’s most recent customs data, the country exported 5.97 million vehicles in 2023. That was more than the 5.22 million passenger cars, buses and trucks China sold overseas last year, according to Chinese customs, a number that chimes with CPCA data.

And the picture is further clouded if you consider industry association data. The Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association released figures on Wednesday indicating the country shipped 4.42 million vehicles to the rest of the world in 2023, less than the 4.91 million exports the China Auto Manufacturing Association reported.

In both countries, customs and industry associations use different metrics. Customs data usually include more categories of cars and car-parts, so their numbers are bigger than the industry figures.

One trend is clear though: China has been closing the gap with the world’s top car exporting nations over the past two years. Its shipments surpassed those of South Korea in 2021 and Germany in 2022.

Its momentum was driven by strong demand in Russia and growing global appetite for electric vehicles (EVs).

Chinese carmakers have benefited from an exodus of global brands from Russia and the imposition of sanctions imposed since Moscow ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

2023 was also a banner year for Chinese EVs, which are cheaper than models built by rivals elsewhere. They have made inroads in Europe, Australia and Southeast Asia.

In 2023, China’s passenger car exports rose 62% from 2022, according to data published by the CPCA last month. More than a quarter of them were electric.

Chinese carmakers are increasingly expanding overseas, particularly as the domestic economy lost momentum last year.

BYD, the Shenzhen-based manufacturer, overtook Tesla (TSLA) as the world’s top seller of EVs at the end of last year, crowning an extraordinary rise for the Chinese carmaker.

It delivered more fully electric cars than Tesla for the first time in the three-month period to December 31, and slashed the sales lead held by Elon Musk’s company over the year as a whole.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at