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Four-Door Diplomacy

June 04, 2005

There is one overarching common ground for an increasing number of the world's cultures: Gotta have wheels.

Car culture might not be the most beneficial U.S. export, but even more than junk food, it's the one with, uh, legs. Especially in China. Beijing, its grand avenues once traversed by buses and bicycles, has developed gridlock that makes the South Bay curve look good.

The Chinese market for cars is having the kind of effect on the global automobile industry that the postwar baby boom had on subdivision home builders. Moreover, with that many people wanting cars, automakers see opportunity where diplomats fear to tread.

China may be North Korea's chief diplomatic ally, but South Korea's Hyundai is now China's best-selling auto brand. China is where DaimlerChrysler has plans to build Mercedes-Benz E-class cars -- and not for export. It's the company's Chrysler compact cars that will be made in China for shipment to the U.S.

Even the historically strained relations between China and Japan may be susceptible to four-door healing. China's latest grievances include Japanese textbooks that, according to critics, whitewash Japan's brutal occupation of China in the 1930s and '40s. Japan's embassy in Beijing took a beating two months ago from rock-throwing protesters.

Yet Japan-based Nissan Motor Co. recently announced it will launch its luxury Infiniti line in China during the next year, while Japanese consumers won't see Infiniti-badged cars for perhaps three years.

Divisions between the two nations run deep and bitter, but it seems they can agree on a sedan with leather seats.

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