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TOKYO (Reuters) - A Chinese automaker could rise up from the nation's fragmented industry to emerge as a global competitor within the next five years through an acquisition of an established automaker, Nissan Motor (7201.T) Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn said on Wednesday.
Ghosn, who was speaking at the Thomson Reuters Newsmaker event in Tokyo, said Nissan expected one or two Chinese automakers to emerge as a "global champion" for Beijing's aspirations for a labor-intensive industry that governments around the world have taken steps to develop and protect.
A merger could help Chinese automakers make the jump to the global stage faster than expected, Ghosn said at the event, which concluded the Reuters Rebuilding Japan Summit.
"The Chinese government says this is a huge industry. We want to have a Chinese champion," Ghosn said. "It's normal. It's logical. We were expecting this."
China's auto sector, now the world's largest by sales volume, is also replacing the United States as the most profitable market for automakers, he said.
China's government requires foreign automakers to tie up with local manufacturers in joint ventures. It has encouraged other steps to foster local auto brands being rolled out by state-run SAIC Motor Corp (600104.SS) and others.
Foreign automakers led by General Motors Co (GM.N) and Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE) remain the top sellers in China but dozens of Chinese automakers also have a presence and strong backing from provincial governments.
Ghosn said he expected it would take at least five years for a Chinese automaker to emerge as a competitor in major markets outside China for the likes of Nissan and Renault SA (RENA.PA), which he also heads.
But an acquisition of a mass-market auto brand by a Chinese manufacturer could shorten that timeframe, he said.
China's Geely bought the Volvo brand from Ford Motor Co (F.N) in 2010, and Ghosn said a larger deal along the same lines was possible.
GM's Opel unit has been seen as a potential partner for a Chinese automaker. GM negotiated and then scrapped a planned sale of Opel to Canada's Magna International Inc (MG.TO) in 2009 and bankers expect GM Chief Executive Dan Akerson to be open to consideration of some alternative deal.
Ghosn declined to say if he thought Opel was a possible acquisition or partnership target for a Chinese car maker.
"I'm not going to give you names, but this kind of thing can happen with a volume maker," he said.
Separately, Ghosn said Nissan was waiting to see details of Beijing's policy on electric cars before announcing whether it would build the all-electric Leaf in China. The government's policy announcement could come this summer, he said.
(For more on the ReutersGlobalRebuilding Japan Summit, see [ID:nL3E7HH23H])
Editing by Edmund Klamann