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Book Review | Decoding the chip wars and the leverage America has on China

Published Jan 15, 2023, 12:27 am IST
Updated Jan 15, 2023, 12:27 am IST
Chip War: The Fight for the World's Most Critical Technology by Chris Miller. (Photo by arrangement)
 Chip War: The Fight for the World's Most Critical Technology by Chris Miller. (Photo by arrangement)

William Shockley, inventor of the silicon switch, Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby, inventors of the integrated circuit, Gordon Moore, formulator of Moore’s Law, Jay Lathrop, inventor of photolithography (the process through which silicon chips are etched to create semiconductors), are not household names like the way Edison, Newton or Henry Ford are. Yet these remarkable individuals are responsible for the most dramatic technological transformations in recent human history as well as the creation of enormous wealth and power across the globe. They are the ones who created the silicon chip and made computing of today’s world possible.

Significantly, all these technology superheroes of today’s world are Americans, spawned by an ecosystem that rewards knowledge, innovation and entrepreneurship. They are the men who made the United States a superpower and the world’s economic powerhouse. Their inventions made weaponry intelligent, accurate and overwhelming; the chip opened up new research vistas paving the way for personal computers, cell phones, televisions, digital cameras and more. Even today, it is the technological superiority of US microchip-based surveillance, detection and guidance systems that is winning battles in Ukraine.

Not surprisingly, continued global dominance in the semiconductor industry is a national priority for the United States, and one that has proved to be an unending struggle. The United States and its brilliant chip designers and makers know that their country will be a world leader only as long as they can maintain their unbeatable edge in semiconductors. Once that lead is lost, the game is over. And that is what today’s most fundamental battle is over: the silicon chip.

Author Chris Miller, professor of International History at Tufts University, has produced what could be the most significant book of 2022 by chronicling the battle to maintain America’s leadership in the silicon chip business amidst growing challenges posed by rivals like China.

The book, Chip War, has won acclaim across the world as it demystifies a largely esoteric subject and lays bare its origins, evolution and progress. Most of all, the book explains what the global chip war is all about and why it is so vital for world powers like the United States and China.

Miller says his book examines “the computer chip in geopolitical context. Since the invention of the transistor in 1947, no item has had a more decisive role on international politics, determining the rise and fall of nations, shaping the military balance, forging globalization.”

“Many would be surprised to learn that microchips are the new oil—the scarce resource on which the modern world depends,” declares the book flyer. “Today, military, economic, and geopolitical power are built on a foundation of computer chips. Virtually everything—from missiles to microwaves, smartphones to the stock market, runs on semiconductors. Now, as Chip War reveals, China, which spends more money importing chips than any other product, is pouring billions into a chip-building initiative to catch the US’s lead. At stake is not only America’s economic prosperity but also its military superiority.”

The book also brings alive the remarkable personalities that have shaped the world of semiconductors and led innovation in the field. Apart from the first batch of inventors who created Silicon Valley, the narrative also talks about people like Morris Chang who founded Taiwan’s semiconductor behemoth the TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company), Richard Chang, founder of China’s SMIC (Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation), and the three men — Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce and Andrew Grove — who made Intel one of the world’s most valuable company and a leader in global innovation.

The most important part of the book is of course about the challenge from China and its intent on breaking free from American dominance. “During most years of the 2000s and 2010s, China spent more money importing semiconductors than oil. High-powered chips were as important as hydrocarbons in fuelling China’s economic growth. Unlike oil, though, the supply of chips is monopolized by China’s geopolitical rivals,” the author points out.

Not surprisingly, in 2016 Chinese President Xi Jinping declared: “However great its size, however great its market capitalisation, if an Internet enterprise critically relies on the outside world for core components, the ‘vital gate’ of the supply chain is grasped in the hands of others.” While China is acknowledged to be an Artificial Intelligence (AI) superpower, all of its “most important technology rests on a fragile foundation of imported silicon.”

In a 2017 speech to China’s tech titans and Communist Party leaders in Beijing, Xi said the goal was to gain breakthroughs in core technologies as quickly as possible. In a speech full of military rhetoric, he declared: “We must promote strong alliances and attack strategic passes in a coordinated manner. We must assault the fortifications of core technology research and development… We must not only call forth the assault, we must also sound the call for assembly, which means we must concentrate the most powerful forces to act together, compose shock brigades and special forces to storm the passes.”

He was not talking about military action against rivals like India or Taiwan but on how the chip war must be fought. Right now, it is outright warfare. US President Joe Biden’s recent decision to put a complete blockade on high end computer chips and technology supply to China must be seen in this context. Geopolitics today cannot be understood without knowing what the semiconductor world is all about.  Professor Chris Miller’s book is the best means to come up to speed on the subject.

Chip War: The Fight for the World's Most Critical Technology by Chris Miller

Simon & Schuster

pp. 431, Rs 799

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