FRANKFURT -- When a Chinese billionaire became Daimler's biggest shareholder in 2018, it caused quite a stir. Another Chinese investor took an even bigger stake the following year, the Mercedes-Benz maker has disclosed for the first time.
Daimler said on Monday that BAIC Automotive Group almost doubled its stake in the manufacturer to 9.98 percent in 2019.
The statement was the first public confirmation that BAIC's stake has risen from a previously disclosed 5 percent.
Taken together with the 9.7 percent holding that Li Shufu, the owner of Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, has had since 2018, it means two Chinese shareholders have controlled almost 20 percent of Daimler, roughly a third more than previously known.
The German automaker did not need to disclose the change in shareholding because BAIC stopped short of 10 percent, a Daimler spokesman said.
The companies decided to make the announcement in the wake of Daimler’s spinoff of its truck division, which will bring about greater transparency, the spokesman said.
BAIC has agreed not to increase its holding any further.
"BAIC's shareholding is a reflection of their commitment to our joint successful manufacturing and development alliance in the world’s biggest car market," Daimler CEO Ola Kallenius said in a statement on Monday.
It's unclear whether the lag time between BAIC acquiring a bigger holding and Daimler's announcement will rekindle scrutiny of disclosure rules and China’s growing influence over iconic German companies.
Financial-markets regulator BaFin probed whether Geely disclosed Li's stake in a timely enough manner in 2018, and Germany’s interim economy minister at the time raised concerns that Geely would learn about Daimler's strategic plans.
Daimler referred to its partnership with BAIC as "a role model for Sino-German cooperation for almost two decades."
State-owned BAIC has been Daimler's main partner in China for years and operates Mercedes-Benz factories in Beijing through the Beijing Benz Automotive joint venture.
The two companies have collaborated in areas such as production, research and development and sales since 2003.
Daimler owns 49 percent of the joint venture and has expressed interest in raising its stake to gain control of the unit after Chinese authorities eased local ownership rules.
Daimler also owns 9.55 percent of BAIC’s Hong Kong-listed unit BAIC Motor and 2.46 percent in Shanghai-listed BAIC BluePark.
BAIC's bigger stake in Daimler underlines the growing presence of Chinese companies in the European auto industry. Geely owns British sports-car and racing business Lotus and has turned around Volvo Cars after the Swedish manufacturer languished as part of Ford Motor.
Dongfeng Motor holds about 4.5 percent in Stellantis, which was created this year from the merger of Fiat Chrysler and PSA Group. BAIC also owns a 6.5 percent stake in Daimler Truck Holding, according to a spokesman for the German truckmaker.
Meanwhile, Chinese electric-vehicle startups including Nio and BYD are pushing to expand in Europe to generate more revenue outside their home market and benefit from growing EV sales in the region.
Western carmakers including Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen have shifted some of their manufacturing to China to gain a stronger foothold in the market.
Daimler's board earlier this month backed investments totaling 60 billion euros ($68 billion) for luxury cars and vans from next year to 2026. After years of criticism for being late to adopt purely battery-powered cars, the manufacturer stepped up its game this year with the launch of the EQS, the electric version of its flagship S-Class.
Reuters contributed to this report