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Politics, Protectionism Seen Spurring Biden’s China EVs Probe

US president has strong political motives for ordering a US review of the security risks presented by Chinese vehicles, analysts say

New cars are seen at a parking lot in Shenyang
Prices of NEVs have been falling fast in China, thanks to major price discounts and tumbling battery costs. File photo: Reuters.


President Joe Biden’s announcement that the US will launch an investigation into the “security risks” of Chinese-made vehicles is seen by many analysts as a political move in what could be a tight election year.

It’s a decision likely to be popular with auto workers and US citizens on both sides of the political spectrum, as it raises the prospect of tariffs or other measures to protect the local auto sector from a potential flood of cheap Chinese EVs.

The White House announced the probe on Thursday citing national-security risks about “connected” cars creating “new avenues for espionage and sabotage,” and claims Chinese EVs could be used to spy on Americans.


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Currently, there are few such cars on US roads, but US carmakers have voiced fear bordering on panic about having to compete at home with Chinese electric vehicles. An auto lobbying group recently said this could be an “extinction-level threat”.

China’s EV industry has surged past all others in recent years and aims to export vehicles globally, often at far lower prices than American EV offerings.

Biden nodded to that economic threat in his statement voicing concerns about espionage: “We’re going to make sure the future of the auto industry will be made here in America with American workers.”

Political and policy experts acknowledge the threat of Chinese spying but also see Biden’s saber-rattling as another opportunity to demonstrate he is tough on China.

“The announcement seems as much oriented at blunting accusations of being weak against China, as it is at finding a solution to this challenge,” Scott Kennedy, a China specialist at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.


A ‘move to suppress competition’

Washington’s Chinese Embassy criticized Biden, saying he was “hyping up the ‘China threat’ theory” to suppress competition.

Kennedy said the probe is reasonable, but he did worry it could also spur protectionism based on “over-stated national security concerns.” He warned this could upend global supply chains and hurt US production.

Many industry officials urged higher trade barriers against Chinese automakers, and the US and European lawmakers are considering them.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in January China could “demolish” global auto rivals if tariffs are not imposed.

Biden’s administration offered no evidence of spying involving the very few Chinese-made cars on American roads today.

Still, China has a history of using technology for US surveillance. Washington last year launched an operation to fight a Chinese hacking operation that compromised thousands of internet-connected devices, Reuters reported in January.

Democratic strategist Jennifer Holdsworth said the administration’s probe aligns with Biden’s backing of union manufacturing jobs: “Good policy is often good politics.”


Battle for auto sector votes

Restrictive trade policy toward China is a rare area of partisan agreement in a deeply divided America. Biden has essentially continued the trade war against China started by his predecessor – and now 2024 campaign opponent – Donald Trump.

Biden’s rhetoric seeks to build support in Michigan, the hub of the US auto industry and one of a handful of competitive states that will decide the 2024 election, Michigan pollster Bernie Porn said. GM, Ford and the US operations of Chrysler parent Stellantis are all headquartered in the state.

“He really needs to go on the offensive and disarm Trump’s argument that their jobs are going away to places like China,” he said.

Trump often ridicules EVs on the campaign trail, calling them a job-killing “hoax” and a capitulation to China.

Biden, who has the endorsement of the United Auto Workers labor union, has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Detroit Three automakers and their factory workers.

Senator Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, said Chinese EVs posed both an economic and a security threat: “The bottom line is there’s no place in the US for vehicles made by Chinese Communist Party backed companies.”


Concern over BYD plant in Mexico

China EV makers’ export surge is adding to the industry’s fears and political pressure on Biden. BYD, the world’s largest EV maker, confirmed plans this week to open a plant in Mexico on the US doorstep, and launched its least-expensive car, the Dolphin Mini hatchback, in Latin America.

BYD has denied it plans to use Mexico as a springboard for the much larger American market.

Biden faces a gauntlet of conflicting political incentives in crafting his EV policy. He has tried to balance the environmental goal of forcing rapid EV adoption with trade policies aimed at effectively banning cars and components from China, which has developed the world’s most advanced and affordable supply chain for batteries and other EV components.

In reforming a $7,500 subsidy for EV buyers starting this year, the administration denied the incentive to cars with batteries or critical battery minerals from “foreign entities of concern” including China.

This initially knocked dozens of vehicles off the eligibility list, including some from the Detroit Three, and sent automakers including Tesla scrambling to build China-free EV component supply chains.

As such rules raise the challenge for US automakers in building affordable electric cars, the administration is separately negotiating with Detroit automakers on emissions rules meant to force them to speed up their EV transitions.

The proposed regulations would dramatically restrict tailpipe emissions with the goal of raising US EV market share from less than 8% now to 67% in 2032.


Vehicle data ‘could be sent abroad’

As pressure builds from US automakers and unions for more anti-China trade barriers, the administration is raising alarms of espionage threats, or even darker scenarios, involving high-tech Chinese cars.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo recently suggested that the Chinese government might try to wreak havoc by cutting off hundreds of thousands of Chinese connected vehicles on American roads. High-tech Chinese cars, she said, “could be immediately and simultaneously disabled by somebody in Beijing. It’s scary to contemplate.”

She also raised the threat of everyday privacy invasions by “bad actors” from “abroad.”

Connected vehicles collect huge amounts of sensitive data, she said, possibly including where a parent drops off kids at school, common routes to the office and calls to drivers from a doctor about a medical issue or a bank about an overdue loan.

“It’s an incredible amount of information that you think is private, but that could be transmitted abroad,” Raimondo said, adding that text messages, location data, emails are all vulnerable.

Anna Puglisi, a former US counter-intelligence official, said Commerce’s national security concerns were valid as cars incorporate more sensors and track location and personal contact information, especially when the companies involved come from a “strategically motivated nation-state” like China.

Some China automakers are state-owned and its communist government weilds broad authority over the whole sector.

“The broader issue is how do you deal with a nation-state that blurs public and private, civil and military, and commandeers its commercial sector to serve the strategic goals of the state?” Puglisi said.


  • Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard




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Jim Pollard

Jim Pollard is an Australian journalist based in Thailand since 1999. He worked for News Ltd papers in Sydney, Perth, London and Melbourne before travelling through SE Asia in the late 90s. He was a senior editor at The Nation for 17+ years.


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