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The global rise of China’s electric vehicles raises concerns in the United States: national security risks become the focus

Electric Vehicles Boom

The White House last week directed the U.S. Commerce Department to investigate the national security risks of “connected vehicles” made in China. U.S. officials liken cars to “smartphones on wheels.” If there are no restrictions on connected cars from “rival countries,” the United States will face more espionage risks. Analysts believe that the U.S. move is a countermeasure for Western countries to deal with the global expansion of Chinese automobiles and is also part of the “risk reduction” action in the U.S.-China technological confrontation.

Cars are both spy tools and can paralyze traffic

Compared with traditional cars, electric cars have a higher “technical content.” Navigation tools, autonomous driving, and other auxiliary functions are all realized by networking technology. The Associated Press quoted White House officials as saying that these cars are constantly connected to personal electronic devices such as mobile phones, other cars, infrastructure, and their car factories, posing a national security risk.

For decades, the competitiveness of China’s automobile industry in the field of traditional fuel vehicles has lagged far behind that of Europe, the United States, Japan, and South Korea. However, as the international automobile industry transitions to new energy vehicles, especially electric vehicles, Chinese technology companies have begun to “change lanes and overtake,” which will allow China to surpass Japan in 2023 and become the world’s largest automobile exporter.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told the media last Wednesday (February 28): “These vehicles are connected to the Internet. They collect a lot of sensitive data about the driver—personal information, biometric information, and “So it doesn’t take much imagination to imagine that large-scale access to this kind of information by a foreign adversary like China would pose serious risks to our national security and the privacy of American citizens,” she said. “

Cybersecurity experts believe that the U.S. government’s concerns about Chinese-made connected vehicles are justified. James Lewis, director of the Strategic Technology Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told the media via email: “Anything connected to the internet can be hacked and used for espionage, and now that includes cars. “

“Think of it not as a car but as a mobile (information) collection device with cameras, microphones, and positioning sensors,” he said.

Vince Crisler, chief strategy officer of cybersecurity company Celerium, said that once smart cars are controlled for malicious purposes, the threat is not only at the individual level, but the overall threat to the U.S. nation is even more worrying.

“You can imagine, like you see in a movie, that you want to target someone and you can crash their car, or you can eavesdrop on a senior government official [through the in-car system] so you can pick up on some insider information. These things certainly happen. But in my opinion, when these systems are interconnected at scale and we don’t really understand command and control, that can create huge national security risks.”

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“You can create traffic jams in cities by launching cyberattacks that take connected cars out of service,” Crisler said as an example.

He also added that even for traditional fuel vehicles, mobile phone programs can remotely unlock and start newer models. Making them a threat to be targeted by hackers.

Part of the overall worries about U.S. and European auto exports to China

Compared with Europe, the number of Chinese cars currently imported to the United States is not large, partly because the United States imposes a high 27.5% tariff on cars imported from China. Statistics from the Atlantic Council show that China’s total exports of pure electric vehicles increased by 70% in 2023 compared with the previous year, reaching US$34.1 billion. The EU is the main destination for China’s pure electric vehicle exports, purchasing such Chinese vehicles worth US$13.46 billion in 2023; by comparison, only US$7.8 million of Chinese pure electric vehicles were exported to the United States this year.

The Biden administration is considering imposing higher tariffs on Chinese cars, Bloomberg reported. However, U.S. government officials are still worried that high tariffs may not necessarily be able to stop the influx of Chinese cars under the pressure of the Chinese government’s huge subsidies and China’s excess production capacity. Some Chinese companies have tried to circumvent U.S. tariffs by building assembly plants in countries close to the United States, such as Mexico.

Joseph Webster, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, said that in terms of assessing national security risks, U.S. and European policymakers need to determine the degree of cooperation between China’s national security agencies and Chinese car companies.

“Electric vehicles form a mobile intelligence gathering platform due to their on-board sensors. Additionally, they face potential risks of sabotage due to the risk of remote hacking,” Webster told the media via email. “In addition to security, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic are concerned that this important industry will be lost to Chinese automakers, which receive significant subsidies from the national, provincial, and local levels.”

The United States’ alarm over China’s connected cars is part of Washington’s overall concerns about the penetration of Chinese technology into Western markets. Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and director of the Data Innovation Center, told the media, “This is part of Washington’s broader strategy to counter what they see as Chinese components of critical infrastructure.

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“So I don’t think it’s a stand-alone part. They (the U.S. government) are basically looking at the entire ecosystem of connected devices, of which connected cars are just one part of the whole global ‘Internet of Things.’ They’re very concerned about this Internet of Things.” parts made in China,” he said.

Beijing criticizes West for being anxious but also wary of Tesla

The U.S. Department of Commerce is conducting a 60-day public consultation on restricting connected cars from “rival countries” and will then develop regulations, but there is currently no clear timetable. The Atlantic Council’s Webster said the Biden administration has a full set of policy tools at its disposal to address risks from connected cars in China.

“In addition to initiating national security investigations, the administration can unilaterally raise tariffs, use diplomacy to influence policy, and more. However, regardless of the ultimate policy lever, the United States will work with allies and partners, especially Europe, to address electric vehicles,” he said. The risks and potential benefits (the balancing issue) are both crucial.”

In response, the Chinese government and official media criticized the United States for suppressing Chinese companies in the name of national security. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a regular press conference on March 1 that China’s global automobile exports do not rely on “unfair practices” but rely on “technological innovation and excellent quality formed in fierce market competition.”

China’s Ministry of Commerce later stated on March 4 that it would “continue to evaluate the follow-up situation of the US review and take effective measures when necessary to resolutely safeguard its legitimate rights and interests.” China’s Ministry of Commerce also criticized the United States for “intending to set up non-tariff barriers under the banner of national security. This is a typical protectionist approach that will disrupt and distort the global automotive industry chain and supply chain and will also harm the interests of American consumers.”

The English version of Global Network, a subsidiary of the People’s Daily, a Communist Party publication, also wrote an article in March quoting Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University, saying that the strong rise of China’s electric vehicles in the international market has inevitably brought “anxiety” to the United States and the West because they have already It felt its dominance of the auto industry was in jeopardy.

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However, many analysts point out that China itself also restricts foreign technology products, including smart cars, on the grounds of national security.

CSIS’s Lewis noted: “China has already begun banning Tesla from government facilities, starting in 2022 when the CCP banned Tesla from entering Beidaihe during a leadership meeting.”

The Atlantic Council’s Webster similarly pointed to the fact that Tesla is banned from sensitive areas in China as “a clear indication that Beijing believes electric vehicles may have or will soon have dual uses.”

Are the risks overstated? Experts recommend precise countermeasures

However, experts also warn that the United States’ countermeasures against China’s connected vehicles need to be extremely precise to avoid causing other countries to follow suit and harm American companies.

“The problem with the current approach in the U.S. is that if other countries take a similar view and don’t want U.S.-made parts in their telecom infrastructure and connected cars, they don’t want U.S.-made applications,” Castro said. on their mobile devices, then this mentality and approach could come back to severely harm U.S. companies. That obviously poses a huge risk to U.S. businesses, so there needs to be a balance there.”

Tom Stefanick, an intelligence expert and visiting fellow at the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, believes that the potential security risks posed by connected cars are just a hypothesis. “It is true that preventing Chinese-made cars or auto parts from entering the United States will reduce hypothetical risks in the future. But this is compared with the existing risks posed by possible attacks on critical infrastructure and the continued exodus of sensitive data through other means. The reduction is minimal. Banning Chinese EVs would have the biggest impact on U.S. auto companies,” he told the media via email.

He said that the United States should focus on countering hacker attacks supported by the Chinese government against the U.S. government, military, and commercial sectors, as well as China’s theft of military technology from the United States.

Daniel Ives, executive director and senior securities analyst at Wedbush Securities, told the media that the “geopolitical environment for the electric vehicle industry remains tense,” but said the U.S. investigation There is no actual risk to China’s automobile industry. “China’s electric vehicle market is leading the world with Tesla. This is still a battle for market share.”

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