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America Still Has an Elon Musk Problem
The mercurial billionaire’s ongoing courtship of Beijing raises serious national security questions for America
Over the past two months, SpaceX, Tesla, and Twitter CEO Elon Musk has gone on two pilgrimages to China in a transparent attempt to curry favor with the country’s ruling Chinese Communist Party—and keep the China market open for Tesla. In China, Musk met with Beijing’s foreign minister and came out against attempts by the United States to reduce its economic dependencies on Beijing, saying the American and Chinese economies are “conjoined twins.” He also recently appeared via video at a state-backed technology conference, where he spoke in language that could easily be mistaken for party propaganda.
More worryingly, Tesla recently pledged to adhere to “core socialist values” and end its price war with Chinese electric vehicle makers. The move came at the behest of Chinese government officials and displays a striking willingness by Musk’s company to accede to Beijing’s demands—even at the expense of its own market position.
These moves come after Musk throttled Ukraine’s access to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service last fall, claiming his company could no longer do so without charge before sourly backtracking amidst widespread criticism—and then restricting its use once again in February. Musk himself has repeatedly dabbled in right-wing politics and conspiracy theorizing on Twitter, the social media platform he unwisely purchased late last year. He and his business associates also rarely miss an opportunity to push Moscow’s defeatist narratives on Ukraine.
In other words, America’s Elon Musk problem has only gotten worse with time.
In particular, Musk’s business relationship with Beijing ought to raise serious questions for the United States—especially given the role companies like SpaceX and Twitter play in America’s foreign policy and national life. Speculation about the potential for Chinese Communist Party influence on Musk and his corporations no longer reside in the realm of the hypothetical; they have become very real questions of national security and public life for the United States given Musk’s ongoing courtship of Beijing and his clear willingness to accept the party’s dictates.
That’s not the only reason for America to be concerned about Musk and his companies, of course. Exploding rockets, chronic shitposting, and a newfound fondness for far-right politics almost immediately come to mind on this front as well. Taken together, they show the folly of putting so many of America’s policy eggs into the basket of Musk’s companies—and the need for the U.S. government to diversify its own investments while fostering more stable and secure alternatives.
To put it another way, the United States needs to Elon-proof its public policy—and sooner rather than later.
Many of the building blocks have already been put into place, at least to a certain extent. NASA, for instance, awarded a second contract for a human lunar lander for its Artemis Program to a team led by Blue Origin—insurance in case SpaceX can’t get the job done, a worry all the more reasonable after the spectacular failure of its first test launch in April. Likewise, the agency has persisted with Boeing’s Starliner commercial crew vehicle despite its lengthy development problems in part so it won’t have to rely solely on SpaceX to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
But the U.S. government could show a greater sense of purpose and urgency when it comes to diversifying contracts away from Musk’s companies and fostering alternatives. SpaceX has established a virtual monopoly over rocket launches largely because the rockets of its main competitors, United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin, remain in development at the moment—as do rival satellite internet constellations like Amazon’s Project Kuiper (which has Pentagon contracts) or the London-based OneWeb. A more focused strategy to nurture and sustain competitive markets on both fronts would be useful and good for the nation. Tesla, for its part, will likely lose electric vehicle market share in the years to come, partly because established automakers like Ford will take advantage of public financing for electric vehicle and battery manufacturing provided by the Inflation Reduction Act and other measures.
Second, the federal government could write certain formal legal requirements into contracts and agreements with companies like SpaceX that would give it privileged access to, say, Starlink services—and keep Musk from shutting them down whenever he feels like it. In the interest of fairness, similar requirements would have to be written into contracts with other similar companies, albeit with much less expectation that the U.S. government would have to enforce them. Other mechanisms like an equity stake that gives the American public a seat at the corporate should be considered as well. There’s no one preferred option here; the point, however, should be to ensure that the American national interests overrides Musk’s business interests or indeed his own personal whims.
Finally, Musk’s companies and business activities require more vigorous and rigorous oversight from relevant government agencies—particularly his business dealings in China. To begin with, the government should make sure Musk and his companies are not violating any American laws (such as export controls) in the course of his campaign to win favor with Beijing. The concentration of economic and, more importantly, social power in Musk’s hands must also become a higher concern: he owns a major if declining social media network (Twitter), a significant telecommunications network (SpaceX’s Starlink service), and a major electric vehicle manufacturer (Tesla) and its associated charging infrastructure. Ultimately, Americans need to rest assured that Musk is not putting his own perceived business interests first and aiding and abetting America’s main strategic rival—and that’s not the case right now.
For whatever reason, Elon Musk’s business interests in China have largely escaped critical scrutiny. But his own recent solicitous behavior toward Beijing ought to bring his activities there into much closer inspection. Musk’s companies certainly have their role to play in helping America achieve our national goals, whether it’s putting more electric vehicles on our roads or advancing our space exploration ambitions. All the same, America needs to de-risk from Musk and his companies—or put sufficient safeguards in place to ensure his business interests don’t come before our national interests.