Salem Alketbi

The microchip war and technological supremacy

الاحد - 08 يناير 2023

Sun - 08 Jan 2023

Although the political literature has been teeming in recent years with speculation about a new Cold War between the US and China and the rapidly growing power of US hegemony over the global system, all indications are that the anticipated war has recently focused on the technology sector.

A global conflict is brewing over the technologies of artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons, cybersecurity, and drones, which have become an intense arena of competition due to their increasing effectiveness in resolving battles and military conflicts.

Conflict today largely revolves around the idea of depriving real or potential strategic adversaries of the grounds for technological superiority, which have become an element of maintaining strategic dominance, influence, and dominance. There are signs that the traditional pillars of military advantage are crumbling in the face of tremendous advances in civilian and military technology.

Distances are shrinking, and everything is being done to secure strategic superiority on the civilian and military fronts. Suffice it to say that hypersonic weapons threaten the delicate balance in which the rapid response or second strike capability stands.

The sheer speed of these weapons undermines the time available to make an appropriate decision: No time elapses between the launch and detection of hypersonic weapons and the decision to retaliate, undermining the conventional deterrence equations that have ensured global balance, particularly since World War II.

This conflict model suggests the role of microchips in future international conflicts. All rapid developments in weapons technology are based on the microchip industry. This is currently the hottest front in the US-China conflict, as the US seeks to block the progress of China’s adversary in this vital sector on which the entire electronics industry depends.

US efforts in this direction reportedly include requiring microchip manufacturers to obtain a license before exporting products to China and banning US citizens and green card holders from working for Chinese microchip companies. This shows how sensitive the US is to what Washington considers its own national security interest.

China called this “technological terrorism” and filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization, the first of its kind since US President Biden took office, alleging that the US is abusing export controls to maintain its leadership in science, technology, engineering and manufacturing.

Experts see the US restrictions as a new blow to global supply chains already suffering from the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the onset of the crisis in Ukraine. Countries show solidarity with the US in restricting sales of high-tech products to Chinese companies.

Washington is already negotiating with its international partners and undermining the expected effect by targeting US controls not only on microchip companies but also on microchip equipment manufacturers. The US-China trade war under former President Trump has become specialized.

It no longer focuses on steel and aluminum tariffs, which remain in place and cover about one-third of the goods China exports to the US. Rather, he has moved to besiege microchip technology to become a more concrete trap for China’s growing ambitions. The latest US measures are not the first of their kind, as they were preceded by a series of measures initiated some time ago.

They are all aimed at limiting China’s influence in the microchip and semiconductor industries, thereby curtailing China’s military industrial capabilities, which in turn limits its potential to gain a military edge over the US. There is debate among experts about the expected impact of US actions. Some argue that they will halt China’s technological leap.

Others argue that there will be a temporary pause. China will focus on developing its own capabilities in this area and later regain greater superiority over its competitors. Beijing has already embarked on a major program to expand its production and innovation capabilities in this area. A third party believes that the consequences outweigh the bilateral conflict and affect the whole world.

Markets are already suffering from a shortage of microchips that has slowed production in many manufacturing sectors. All of this threatens the global economy with another recession.

But none of that apparently matters to a US government leader focused on that front, because President Biden signed legislation last August that earmarks $280 billion for high-tech manufacturing and research to promote US technological superiority in the conflict with China.

Chip projects are underway in the US to bring industry back to the US in partnership with Taiwanese and South Korean companies. According to statistics, the US now produces only about 10% of the world’s semiconductors for all major industries, from telephones to advanced weapons, down from about 40% in 1990. This is the only place where the Taiwanese x-factor comes into play.

The island is the world’s largest center for the production of computer microchips and semiconductors. Much of the conflict over Taiwan appears to be related to this sensitive strategic industry. It is technical sovereignty that currently seems to be at the center of the struggle between the major international powers.

Japan even considers domestic support for this industry as much of a “national concern” as food and energy supplies. US semiconductor and microchip manufacturing capabilities are still relatively far from being restored. Until then, Washington will defend Taiwan, which, despite its importance to US national security, seems to carry more weight than Ukraine.