Accessibility links

Breaking News

With Back-to-Back Actions, Biden Spotlights China Data Security Threat

FILE - U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Woodside, California, Nov. 15, 2023, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative forum. Despite thawing relations, the U.S. in the past week has issued a series of actions pressuring Chinese interests.
FILE - U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Woodside, California, Nov. 15, 2023, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative forum. Despite thawing relations, the U.S. in the past week has issued a series of actions pressuring Chinese interests.

The Biden administration launched a series of actions against China in recent days, sustaining pressure against the United States' key strategic rival even as it focuses on more urgent fronts, including the wars in Gaza and Ukraine.

In the span of one week, the administration announced an executive order to protect Americans' personal data from foreign adversaries, including China; launched an investigation into potential security threats posed by connected vehicles that use Chinese technology; and placed sanctions on Chinese entities for supporting Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

The actions taken by President Joe Biden stand in contrast to the months of warming ties following a November summit in California between him and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping — a meeting aimed to improve a bilateral relationship that had reached its lowest point in decades due to rivalry and mistrust.

Since the summit, diplomatic engagement has increased from both sides, including the resumption of military-to-military talks that were frozen after former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's 2022 visit to Taiwan.

Restarting staff-level talks in early January was key to ensuring that the two sides avoided a major cross-strait incident during Taiwan's election later in the month.

In January, Washington and Beijing also launched a working group designed to crack down on the flow of Chinese precursors used in the production of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs sold in the U.S., another sign of cooperation between the superpowers.

Ties improved to the point that Beijing marked the 45th anniversary of U.S.-China diplomatic relations in January with a lavish banquet, where Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised that Chinese giant pandas, much loved by American zoo visitors, will return to U.S. by the end of the year.

So why the flurry of actions against China now?

National security issue

The White House sidestepped questions on the back-to-back timing of the measures.

Biden is "concerned about countries like China," White House deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton said to reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday.

"China is right now looking to flood the market here in the United States and around the world with vehicles equipped with advanced technology from countries of concern," she said. "That's a national security issue that we take very seriously."

An administration official told reporters during a briefing that the U.S. Commerce Department probe launched Thursday to ensure that Chinese cars driving on American roads do not undermine U.S. national security, is "complementary and distinct" from the executive order to protect Americans' personal data from China and other foreign adversaries. The latter order blocks bulk transfers of data such as geolocation, biometric, health and financial information to "countries of concern."

By putting the two announcements next to each other, the administration is trying to communicate that they're taking data security seriously, said Emily Benson, director of the Project on Trade and Technology at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The anticipated outcome there was to signal that the connected vehicle rules are actually a national security instrument," Benson told VOA.

The U.S. plans to engage partners and allies following the investigation into the threat posed by Chinese vehicles. There's a "growing sense of the security risks" and "really strong interest in the measures that we might take and the results of the investigation," an administration official told VOA during a briefing Wednesday.

Biden himself warned of the dangers.

"Connected vehicles from China could collect sensitive data about our citizens and our infrastructure and send this data back to the People's Republic of China," the president said in a statement.

National security concerns aside, the administration is also anticipating an overcapacity of more affordable Chinese vehicles entering the American marketplace, especially as Chinese auto producers such as BYD set up manufacturing facilities in Mexico that would afford them more favorable tariff rates under USMCA, the free-trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

"That has created a lot of fear in Washington about the longevity of the U.S. automobile sector," Benson said.

She added that the executive actions taken this week are "easier and more appropriate" than the effort to ban TikTok. The social media app is used by more than 100 million Americans despite allegations that its China-based parent company, ByteDance, could collect sensitive user data.

While the federal government and dozens of individual states have barred TikTok from government devices, Congress has yet to enact legislation to ban Americans from using the application on their personal devices.

The app is highly popular, especially among young people, prompting Biden's campaign to join the platform despite the administration's previously firm stance on its potential national security concerns.

Balanced approach

As Biden gears up for his reelection campaign, his administration is keen to project the image that they are taking the threat of China seriously, said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.

"Balancing has always been the theme of his policy," Sun told VOA. "When there is positive engagement, there's also the punitive gestures."

Without such gestures, the administration would be vulnerable to criticism that it is ignoring the fact that Beijing remains a source of significant national security challenges for the United States, she said.

"The administration has to demonstrate that it is extremely clear-eyed about the limitation of engagement but also the desirability of the engagement," she said. "Engagement does not mean there's no problem."

Washington also announced sanctions against Chinese firms last week as part of a measure marking the second anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The trade penalties targeted entities in Russia and in countries viewed by the administration as supporting Moscow's war effort.

The actions against China followed a meeting between Wang and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference earlier in February.

In the meeting, Wang warned Blinken that turning de-risking "into 'de-China,' building 'small courtyards and high walls,' and engaging in 'decoupling from China' will eventually backfire on the United States."

Paris Huang and Adam Chuanqi Xu contributed to this report.