EV Paranoia

Feb 29, 2024

America’s Sinophobia seems to have no limits. That’s especially the case with the US-China tech war. First, it was Huawei’s alleged backdoor threat to 5G telecommunications platforms. Then it was TikTok, followed more recently by the escapades of China’s Volt Typhoon cyberhacking brigade that I wrote about two weeks ago (and just turned into an article for Project Syndicate). Now, it is the potential invasion of Chinese electric vehicles (EVs).

All these purported threats have one important characteristic in common—they reflect allegations based on imagination, fear, or conjecture of an imminent national security threat. The presumption is that circumstantial evidence implies both motives and, ultimately, adversarial action—politically expedient “presuppositional resonance,” according to David Beaver and Jason Stanley in their extraordinary new book, The Politics of Language.

Today’s online issue of Wired features the latest twist in this tale, an article titled, “The White House Warns Cars Made in China Could Unleash Havoc on US Highways.” It highlights an inflammatory warning from US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, “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.”

The key word in Secretary Raimondo’s warning is “imagine.” As John Lennon reminded us over five decades ago, imagination, in many respects, is the genius of the human spirit. But any dictionary will tell you that imagination refers less to truth and more to ideas or images that “are not present to the senses,” not “wholly perceived in reality.” That pretty much nails it for Raimondo. She is, in effect, sounding an alarm about a Chinese threat that bears a striking similarity to one issued by FBI Director Christopher Wray in recent testimony to Congress; Wray warned of a Chinese cyberattack on critical US infrastructure, “If and when China decides the time has come to strike” (my italics added).

Wray’s conjecture of the “if and when” is the functional equivalent of Raimondo’s imaginative speculation. The Commerce Secretary has gone one-step further, ordering a 60-day review by its Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), issuing an “advance notice of proposed rulemaking” that could lead to the imposition of onerous regulations on Chinese EVs. President Biden’s accompanying statement drives that point home. Not by coincidence, Biden has also issued a sweeping executive order aimed at protecting America’s most sensitive personal data from “countries of concern.” Any guess as to who is high on the list of those countries of concern? My take is that all this presuppositional resonance is hardly a coincidence in a bipartisan climate of virulent anti-China sentiment.

An analogous problem plagues America’s approach to the Taiwan problem—speculative saber rattling about the likelihood of a PRC invasion by 2027. Again, no hard evidence of this purported action, just “educated conjecture” based on a presumably reliable background intelligence assessment of the CIA. Meanwhile, starting with Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 visit to Taipei, the US Congress has continued to raise the anxiety level over Taiwan. And China has responded in kind, with unprecedented military exercises in the sea and the air of the Taiwan Strait. That underscores one of the greatest dangers of such false narratives: By ratcheting up the anxiety, we might end up provoking the very hostile act we fear most.

Just as I was getting ready to hit the send button on this dispatch, I caught a glimpse of Commerce Secretary Raimondo being interviewed by Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC. She repeated the message conveyed in the Wired article, but placed even greater emphasis on the key word, “imagine” which she mentioned at least three times. She stressed that her concerns were purely about national security of Americans and our kids and had nothing to do with economic competition coming from China’s incredible line of EVs that compete extremely well on quality and price with those currently available in the US.

I found that latter point a bit disingenuous as Secretary Raimondo then went on to complain about the unfair government subsidies that Chinese EVs enjoy. There was no mention, of course, of the US government’s massive subsidies that supported Tesla in recent years in its ascendancy as the world’s first-mover in the EV space. Raimondo was clearly more intent on sending a strong warning about the frightening repercussions of an imaginary scenario whereby the Chinese just flip the switch and disable hundreds of millions of EVs on American highways. If I didn’t know any better, I could have sworn she took this script right off of a recent Netflix movie, “Leave the World Behind.” Watch it yourself and tell me what you think.

You can follow me on X/Twitter @SRoach_econ

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