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Employees work on Baojun RS-5 cars at an assembly plant operated by General Motors Co and its local joint-venture partners in Liuzhou, China, on Feb. 28, 2019.

ALY SONG/Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump, who is engaged in a trade war with Beijing, said on Friday that the largest U.S. automaker, General Motors Co, should begin moving its operations back to the United States.

Trump appeared to be referring to a Bloomberg News story that reported GM’s hourly work force of 46,000 U.S. workers has fallen behind that of Fiat Chrysler as the smallest of the Detroit Three automakers. Over the past four decades, GM has dramatically cut the size of its overall U.S. work force, which numbered nearly 620,000 in 1979.

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GM did not directly comment on Trump’s tweet.

“GM’s China operations are not a threat to U.S. jobs,” the company said in a fact sheet, noting that its joint ventures have sent $16 billion in equity income to GM since 2010 and that it has invested $23 billion in U.S. operations since 2009.

GM’s U.S. hourly work force has fallen by about 4,000 jobs since the end of 2018 to about where it was a decade ago.

Trump’s ire with GM comes as contract talks with the United Auto Workers union with the Detroit Three automakers intensify ahead of a Sept. 14 deadline. Trump has previously attacked GM for building vehicles in Mexico and for ending production at plants in Michigan, Ohio and Maryland and threatened to cut GM subsidies in retaliation.

GM’s decision to close four plants in the United States is a central issue in the contract talks.

Trump has made boosting auto jobs a key priority and has often attacked automakers on Twitter for not doing enough to boost U.S. employment. His 2020 re-election bid will hinge on holding key industrial battleground states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan that narrowly voted for him in 2016.

China is the world’s largest auto market, and government policy favours automakers assembling vehicles there, and not importing them from overseas.

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In response to Trump’s latest tariffs, China said last week it will reinstitute 25 per cent tariffs on U.S.-made vehicles. The U.S. is imposing 15 per cent tariffs on more than $125 billion in Chinese goods starting Sunday.

GM sold 3.6 million vehicles in China last year accounting for 43 per cent of its worldwide sales. GM booked $2 billion in equity income from its China operations last year.

GM imports a small number of vehicles from China. In June, the Trump administration rejected a request from GM to exempt its Chinese-made Buick Envision from a 25 per cent U.S. tariff on sport utility vehicle models.

The mid-size SUV has become a target for U.S. critics of Chinese-made goods, including leaders of the UAW members in key political swing states such as Michigan and Ohio.

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