America’s days as the world’s biggest auto market are coming to an end, with China for the first time ever overtaking the U.S. in vehicle sales for the first of 2009. On the back of strong sales in the month of June, which itself was up 36.5%, China’s total vehicle sales for the first half of the year rose to 6.1 million, up 17.7% from a year earlier despite the harsh economic conditions.

That easily outpaced the U.S., where vehicle sales in the same period plunged to 4.8 million units. The only month where more vehicles were sold in the U.S. than in China was May. This rate also leaves the U.S. on track for an annual total of less than 10 million vehicles where as China is looking at more than 12 million.

Like most industrial countries, China was not completely immune from the global economic crisis. China's vehicle sales weakened in late 2008 as the crisis hit and the government needed to respond with a stimulus package with sales tax cuts, subsidies to trade in older cars and other incentives, reports the Associated Press.

China is one of the most important markets for the major automakers as the demand the country is providing is making up for the slack in more established markets. General Motors, for example, is experiencing a 38% rise in sales in China over the previous year, while its U.S. operations have gone bankrupt.