CommentaryIn the salad days, General Motors greedily sought to buy shares in as many overseas auto makers as possible.

While it feasted on European brands, it also hungrily sought out Asian companies, gobbling up stakes in Isuzu, Suzuki and Subaru in Japan; buying the assets of bankrupt Daewoo in Korea; and setting up a joint venture with Shanghai Automotive in China.

Now the world's largest auto maker is embarking on a massive turnaround effort that finds it looking to dump some of these very same players.

Under the gun from Wall Street, which has relegated its bonds to junk status, and under the microscope of billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian and his pit bull, Jerry York, GM is playing hardball.

This month, it pulled up the red carpet to jettison Suzuki. Last year, it was Subaru (Fuji Heavy Industries) that was on the receiving end of a surprise sayonara. And before that it was Fiat.

Struggling to keep afloat in an ocean of red ink, GM needs the money. Its 20% stake in Subaru reportedly was worth $422 million, and it is expecting to see $2 billion for its 17.4% stake in Suzuki.

GM last year lost $8.6 billion in 2005, and its sweeping restructuring includes shedding 30,000 workers and closing 12 facilities by 2008.

But that's not enough.

While the auto maker still has $20 billion in cash, by some media accounts, it faces enormous debts before it can right itself. These include possible worker buyouts, early retirement packages and health-care obligations.

Additionally, GM is at risk of a crippling strike should Delphi, its former supplier subsidiary now under Chapter 11 protection, decide to cancel union contracts, as it has threatened to do.

Nevertheless, GM says it will retain a 3% piece of Suzuki, enough to keep the partnership going.

And that's important, because while Suzuki may build small, affordable cars, it is a much larger and more profitable company than most Americans envision, reportedly valued at $2.3 billion.

Unlike Subaru, which saw 8.7% of GM's shares picked up by Toyota, Suzuki reportedly is buying back all of its 92.36 million shares in order to lend a helping hand to its longtime partner of 25 years, it says. And it will hold these shares for at least a year, in case GM wants to repurchase them.

Although Suzuki humbly claims to need GM, it is in far better financial health, with about $2.5 billion in cash at the end of last year. Last month, the auto maker posted a 5.5% increase in quarterly operating profit and said it was looking for a higher full fiscal-year earnings at the end of this month.

The two companies have valuable collaborative projects. They jointly own an assembly plant in Canada, and Suzuki plans to start building a GM-designed V-6 engine in Japan. Suzuki also holds an 11% stake in GM Daewoo, South Korea's third-largest auto maker.

In this age of intense global competition, even the best-laid plans are subject to change. It's nice to know GM still has a friend.

bmcclellan@wardsauto.com