As the United States tries to wean itself from fossil fuels and rebuild its infrastructure to make electric-car usage more feasible, policymakers need to ask whether the nation is prepared for a risky tradeoff: tying Americans to dependence on yet another foreign source of energy. The electricity powering these vehicles is generated entirely at home, but electric cars are useless without batteries, and one nation completely dominates the battery market: China.
That’s the same nation the United States has accused repeatedly of spying on U.S. manufacturers, stealing U.S. trade secrets and unfairly subsidizing Chinese companies. The same country that is steadily seizing chunks of the South China Sea and harassing ships and fishing boats from other nations — prompting the United States to step up naval patrols in response. The same country whose growing military might and ability to deliver intercontinental ballistic missiles has prompted the United States to sign a $66 billion deal to supply Australia with nuclear submarines. The same country currently harassing Taiwan and shown in recent satellite imagery constructing mock U.S. warships in a desert to be used by Chinese aircraft for target practice.
There’s little doubt China is gearing up for potential confrontation with the United States on every commercial, military and strategic level. The West cannot afford to be dependent on a nation that has potentially hostile intentions while it also controls the single component that makes America’s conversion to electric cars and trucks viable.
According to production statistics compiled by Bloomberg, China ranks first in the world in the mining of the raw materials to make electric-vehicle batteries: lithium, nickel, manganese, graphite and cobalt (the United States ranks 11th worldwide). China is first in battery manufacturing (the United States ranks fourth; it is second behind China in demand for batteries). China has among the lowest environmental standards for battery manufacturing, meaning it is less hindered by costly regulations from polluting the air and water in its quest to maintain global market domination.
The United States learned the hard way after the 1973 Middle East war, when Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries called a boycott to punish the United States for supporting Israel: When political and military interests intersect with access to a crucial commodity, national security cannot help but be compromised. The Soviet Union emerged one of the primary beneficiaries, with ongoing access to cheap oil, as U.S. pump prices doubled and cars lined up for blocks outside gas stations.
Today’s arch-rival is China at a time when Americans are working hard to cut greenhouse gases by converting to electric cars. Since there is no such thing as a Strategic Petroleum Reserve for batteries, the United States must enter this new era better prepared by diversifying its access to battery material and boosting domestic manufacturing expertise. Because dependence on China is not an option.