CHINA WATCHChip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology

By Robert Wihtol

Published 23 February 2023

Forget the “Malacca dilemma,” that is, how China protects the narrow strait linking the Indian and Pacific oceans, which is the conduit for around 60% of China’s oil imports. These days, Chris Miller writes in his new book, China’s leaders are more concerned about a blockade “measured in bytes rather than barrels.”

Forget the ‘Malacca dilemma’ is generally considered to top China’s list of strategic concerns. The narrow strait linking the Indian and Pacific oceans serves as the conduit for around 60% of China’s oil imports. In a crisis, it would quickly become a chokepoint. Not only is China’s military strategy built around this fact, but so are its huge investments to develop alternative routes for its energy imports.

Chris Miller considers this old-school thinking. According to Miller, an associate professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, these days China’s leaders are more concerned about a blockade ‘measured in bytes rather than barrels’. In Chip war: the fight for the world’s most critical technology, Miller describes how China is investing massively in its semiconductor industry and pressing foreign companies to turn over sensitive technology in an effort to free itself from America’s stranglehold on its supply of advanced microchips.

Miller reminds us that semiconductors are essential to virtually everything we use, from household appliances, smartphones and vehicles to the most sophisticated satellites and military technology. When car manufacturers around the world were unable in 2021 to meet their targets, temporarily closing many plants, it was because of a shortage of semiconductors, not steel. China currently spends more importing microchips than it does on oil.

Military power in World War II was determined by steel and aluminium, and in the Cold War by nuclear weapons. As Miller sees it, the outcome of the rivalry between the US and China will be determined by semiconductors. Military strategists in both countries know that advanced weaponry requires cutting-edge chips.

And China’s leaders are equally aware that the most advanced chips—and the technology to manufacture them—are produced in supply chains controlled by only five countries: Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States. Without these countries’ cooperation it will be an uphill struggle for China to develop military technology on a par with the West.

Miller walks the reader through the basics of semiconductor technology, highlighting its long lead-times and complexity. China is now up to a decade behind its competitors, he notes. Meanwhile, Samsung, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and Silicon Valley have been surging ahead, consistent with Moore’s law of doubling the capacity of semiconductors every year.