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Electric Vehicles

Biden Knows Tariffs Won’t Stop Chinese EVs

This is a matter of national security.

President Biden and Xi Jinping.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

China’s car industry has been on a tear lately. Last year, China became the world’s largest auto exporter, and its home-grown carmaker BYD recently eclipsed Tesla as the world’s No. 1 maker of electrified vehicles.

If China were following a playbook first written by Japanese or Korean automakers, you’d expect them to start selling their cars in the United States pretty soon. But China — unlike Japan or South Korea — is not an American ally, and so it’s going to have to follow a different path.

On Thursday, the Biden administration opened an investigation into the national security risks posed by Chinese-made “connected vehicles,” which essentially means any vehicle or any car part that connects to the internet. New cars, especially EVs, are outfitted with cameras, sensors, or cellular modems required for modern safety features.

The probe is the first part of what is likely to be a broad American policy response to the rise of Chinese electric vehicles. “China’s policies could flood our market with its vehicles, posing risks to our national security,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “I’m not going to let that happen on my watch.”

The investigation is a big deal, in part because it marks that the backlash to Chinese EVs has begun in earnest in the U.S. Look closely and you’ll see Biden’s quote this morning gives away the game: Is the risk that Chinese vehicles flood the market, or is the risk that they’ll harm national security? For this administration, one has the sense that it’s both.

In a press briefing with reporters, Commerce Secretary Gina Rainmondo, whose office will lead the investigation, argued that these sensors and computers could pose a risk to national security.

“Imagine if there were thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of Chinese connected vehicles on American roads that could be immediately and simultaneously disabled by somebody in Beijing,” she said. “It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out how a foreign adversary like China with access to this sort of information at scale could pose a serious risk for national security and the privacy of U.S. citizens.”

It was crucial to launch the investigation now, she added, before Chinese-made vehicles became more prevalent on American roads. Today, only a handful of brands — including Volvo, Polestar, and Buick — sell Chinese-made vehicles in the United States, and no Chinese-originating brand sells cars here.

There are three more things to observe about the sudden American action against Chinese EVs.

First, the administration’s actions aren’t particularly surprising. As I’ve previously written, the rise of Chinese EVs poses an existential threat to the legacy American automakers, including Ford and General Motors. These companies employ four times more workers in Michigan than in any other state, and Biden’s path to reelection runs straight through Michigan this November.

And even though Biden’s climate agenda has been aggressively focused on domestic development — you could argue that the Inflation Reduction Act is as much about national competitiveness as emissions reductions, per seDonald Trump will claim no matter what that Biden’s climate policy is a “job-killing” gift to China. So Biden has to be especially certain that Chinese-made EVs don’t threaten — can’t even seem like a threat — to the Michigan auto industry.

Democrats, too, are not alone in calling for action against Chinese EV makers. Republicans have already branded Biden’s pro-EV campaign as a giveaway to China. On Wednesday, Senator Josh Hawley, a far-right Missouri Republican, proposed legislation that would raise tariffs on Chinese EVs much higher than their current level — to an astounding 125%. That would exceed the highest tariff rates on the books, and it would also apply the duties to Chinese-branded EVs made anywhere in the world, including in countries that the U.S. has a free-trade agreement with.

Second, the investigation reflects just how difficult it will be for the United States and China to keep from fighting over their highest quality technological exports. Over the past few years, the U.S. has targeted or restricted Huawei devices and the social network TikTok. China has slapped rules on how Apple’s and Tesla’s products can be used.

At Heatmap, we have written frequently about how the effort to deploy green technologies is becoming inseparable from geopolitics. But this fight is over something much broader than zero-carbon technologies — it’s potentially about digitized products, anything with software, which includes electric vehicles and batteries as well as smartphones and gadgets. If the American government now believes that Chinese-made products with cameras or sensors risk U.S. national security, then potentially a whole range of products — robot vacuums, e-bikes, GPS watches, even home appliances — could pose some sort of security risk. Electric vehicles may represent a greater security risk, but the difference between them and, say, phones is one of degrees and not kind.

Finally, the investigation reveals something that canny observers have already noted: Tariffs alone probably can’t keep Chinese-branded EVs out of the American market forever. BYD, the world’s No. 1 seller of electrified vehicles, is planning to open a factory in Mexico; it already sells its cars there. If BYD succeeds in establishing a North American beachhead, then its cars could potentially fall under U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement rules and freely enter the United States. (The Hawley bill would theoretically circumvent this by applying its tariffs to Chinese-branded vehicles wherever they are made. Whether this would actually be worth the rift it would open with one of our most important manufacturing partners is an open question.)

Those vehicles could rapidly become the most affordable new cars on the road — if not in the United States itself, then in Mexico and Canada, where American brands compete. BYD recently advertised an $11,000 plug-in hybrid targeted at the Chinese market. Even if meeting American highway safety regulations added another $4,000 to that vehicle’s cost, it would still be among the cheapest new cars sold in this country. Even doubling its price with tariffs would keep it firmly among the country’s most affordable new vehicles.

That could be good. Electric vehicles need to get cheaper everywhere, including the U.S., if we are to fight climate change. Likewise, the Commerce Department’s investigation could result in a happy outcome, by which the national security and privacy risks of Chinese EVs could be managed — through software, for instance — allowing BYD or Polestar to sell some cars here without exposing Americans to significant risk. But that’s not the the direction that I expect things to take.

Robinson Meyer profile image

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.

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