Chinese EVs have entered center stage in US-China tensions

This story first appeared in China Report, MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday. So far, electric vehicles have mostly been discussed in the US through a scientific, economic, or environmental lens. But all of a sudden, they have become highly political.  Last Thursday, the Biden…
Chinese EVs have entered center stage in US-China tensions

Last Thursday, the Biden administration announced it would investigate the security risks posed by Chinese-made smart cars, which could “collect sensitive data about our citizens and our infrastructure and send this data back to the People’s Republic of China,” the statement from White House claims.

While many other technologies from China have been scrutinized because of security concerns, EVs have largely avoided that sort of attention until now. After all, they represent a technology that will greatly help the world transition to clean and renewable energy, and people have greeted its rapid growth in China with praise.

But US-China relations have been at a low point since the Trump years and the pandemic, and it seems like only a matter of time before any trade or interaction between the two countries falls under security scrutiny. Now it’s EVs’ turn.

The White House has made clear that there are two motivations behind the investigation: the economy and security.

Even though the statement didn’t explicitly mention EVs, it’s undeniable that they are the only reason Chinese automakers have now become serious challengers to their American peers. Chinese companies like BYD make quality EVs at affordable prices, making them increasingly competitive in international markets. A recent report by the Alliance for American Manufacturing, an industry group, even describes EV competition as “China’s existential threat to America’s auto industry.”

“The issue of Chinese EV imports really hits on so many major political factors all at the same time,” says Kyle Chan, a sociology researcher at Princeton University who studies industrial policies and China. “Not just the auto plants in swing states like Michigan and Ohio, but the broader auto manufacturing sector spread over many important states.”

If the US auto industry fails to remain competitive, it will threaten the job security of millions of Americans, and countless other parts of the US economy will be affected. So it’s no surprise Chinese EVs are seen as a major economic threat that needs to be addressed. 

In fact, it’s one of the few issues everyone seems to agree on in this election cycle. Before the Biden investigation, Trump drew people’s attention to Chinese EVs during campaign speeches, vowing to slap a 60% tariff on Chinese imported goods. Josh Hawley, a Republican senator and a longtime China hawk, proposed a bill last Tuesday for a whopping 125% tariff on Chinese cars, including Chinese-branded cars made in other countries like Mexico.