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Who’s winning the war over chips?

a researcher wearing cleanroom suit displaying a wafer in the lab of Shanghai Microsemi Semiconductor Co., Ltd. in Shanghai, China.

A researcher wearing cleanroom suit displaying a wafer in the lab of Shanghai Microsemi Semiconductor Co., Ltd. in Shanghai, China.

Reuters

When it comes to semiconductor production, there’s just one superpower: Taiwan. The self-governing island produces more than two-thirds of the world’s chips, and almost all of the advanced ones.

But with Taiwan’s geopolitical fate uncertain, both Washington and Beijing are racing to build their own dominance and self-sufficiency in the chip industry.

We sat down with Eurasia Group geo-technology expert Xiaomeng Lu to learn more about where this battle is heading. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


GZERO: When did this global war over chips really get started, and what’s driving it?

Xiaomeng Lu: Before 2017 and 2018, Beijing generally had this view that China was a big digital economy power. “We're the home to the biggest platform companies in the world” and so on.

But when the US placed severe sanctions on Huawei [in 2019], it kneecapped Huawei's 5G flagship business portfolio. Huawei is one of the poster children of China's highly advanced technology system, and Beijing suddenly realized that it was heavily reliant on just a couple suppliers of semiconductors, some of which are American.

China saw it had basically no near-term leverage against US technology dominance in this area, and that they needed to address the vulnerability. So that's why China started using this term "technology self-reliance.”

That generated a sense of competition in the US and increased the focus on Taiwan [the leading chip producer overall]. Those two things are, I think, the top drivers of the US-China race in semiconductor development.

What are the US and China doing to gain their own advantage in semiconductors?

Xiaomeng Lu: China a few years ago established a national fund to support semiconductor companies [domestically], and I think the clearest number on all of it is somewhere near $50 billion for two rounds of national investment in the domestic semiconductor industry.

The US recently passed the CHIPS Act, which includes broad financial support for science and technology. But the part that's most significant is basically a lot of tax breaks for the domestic high-end manufacturing part of the semiconductor industry. That's somewhere around $52 billion dollars.

So there's definitely a race of government sponsorship in this industry to ensure they get the competitive edge. For the US, their goal is to maintain a large, existing competitive advantage over China. For China, their goal is just to catch up.

So, is China in fact catching up?

Xiaomeng Lu: There's a lot of problems with how they're spending their money. Some factories got a lot of government funding and then didn't produce much technology, and a few years later went bankrupt or were bought by industry players. There's also quite a bit of corruption in the process of allocating those funds to various national champions.

But at the same time, it’s generated some constructive results, including, for example, companies like SMIC, a national champion in manufacturing midrange semiconductors. So there's a handful of successful cases and maybe a dozen failures. It's a mixed outcome so far.

Will the CHIPS Act keep the US ahead in the chip race?

Xiaomeng Lu: It’s too early to tell. There is a detailed implementation guide for companies that want to apply for this $52 billion fund, but that guideline won’t be issued by the Department of Commerce until next February. So we don't even know who is qualified for this funding yet.

The US has recently imposed export controls that prevent American companies from sending key technologies to China. Will those measures be effective in curtailing China's tech sector strategy?

Xiaomeng Lu: In the near term, I think they're quite effective. They focus on the high-end chips used for high-performance computers and super-computers, an area where China has so far done well. So the US restrictions create an upstream crisis for Beijing that will slow down China's supercomputing industry development. Until now, some Chinese supercomputers have outperformed their American and Japanese counterparts, and I think that competitive edge will be, if not eliminated, undermined significantly in the coming years.

Some people say Taiwan’s status as a semiconductor superpower actually protects the island from invasion by China – the idea being that the risk of the Taiwanese chip factories being damaged in a war is something that worries Beijing since its own tech companies rely on Taiwanese chips. Do you believe in this “Silicon Shield”?

Xiaomeng Lu: A lot of mainland Chinese factories still rely on those [Taiwanese] components. That's a big part of China's global electronics trade flows. I think between the technology exposure and the trade element, they will try not to take drastic actions around those chip factories until the political drivers really escalate the conflict.

But I think it's a temporary shield. If a real war starts, then the Silicon Shield is not going to do anything. Right now it's kind of a very thin layer of protection when the political environment is not that dire.

If TSMC [the main Taiwanese semiconductor company] were not on the island, do you believe China would have already invaded?

Xiaomeng Lu: It's not a driving factor, it's a secondary element. The red line is always sovereignty. If Taiwan publicly declares independence, then it doesn't matter if TSMC is there or not.

Would warnings of an impending invasion lead to a brain drain that could threaten Taiwan’s semiconductor industry?

Xiaomeng Lu: I think if the tension escalates further, you will see China try to poach talent from Taiwan by offering them jobs and careers and generous financial packages, and the US would probably do the same. If those engineers are concerned about their own safety, their families’ safety, there is a scenario for at least some of them to move away from the island. And that's one of the worst-case scenarios for the Taiwanese government. They want to keep their Silicon Shield, they want to keep their high-end technology, they want to keep their talent on the ground.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has encouraged TSMC to move some of its production to the US, to take advantage of CHIPs act money. Is that likely to happen?

Xiaomeng Lu: I think they're considering it but if you’re TSMC, it depends on how high you think the geopolitical risk is. If [an attack] is going to happen in five years, they probably want to move. But the risk of moving the most advanced technology and their people over to the US is that if the conflict doesn't happen or doesn't escalate to a very severe level, you are wasting your resources and irking the Taiwanese government.


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