Chinese Semiconductor Manufacturers Embrace Open Source Technology for Advanced Chip Production

ByYasmeeta Oon

Feb 6, 2024

Beijing’s Strategic Move in the Global Chip Market

In a significant development that underscores China’s ambitious efforts to reshape the half-trillion-dollar global semiconductor industry, a Beijing-based military institute has made headlines with the publication of a patent for a new, high-performance chip. This move is seen as part of China’s broader strategy to navigate through U.S. sanctions and assert its presence in the highly competitive chip market.

Embracing Open-Source Technology

  • Patent Innovation: In September, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Academy of Military Sciences revealed a patent that leverages the open-source RISC-V standard. This initiative aims to enhance chip performance, particularly in reducing malfunctions for applications in cloud computing and smart vehicles.
  • RISC-V’s Role: The RISC-V instruction set architecture, a fundamental computer language, is pivotal in designing a wide array of chips, from those in smartphones to sophisticated processors for artificial intelligence. Unlike the x86 and Arm standards, which are under the tight grip of Western companies, RISC-V’s open-source nature offers a geopolitically neutral platform. This characteristic is crucial for China as it seeks to mitigate its reliance on Western chip technology amid tightening U.S. and U.K. export controls.

Navigating Through Sanctions

The patent filing is not just a showcase of technological advancement but also a tactical move in the ongoing technological tug-of-war between China and the West. With the U.S. expanding restrictions on China’s access to cutting-edge semiconductors and chip-manufacturing equipment, the embrace of RISC-V is a calculated step towards self-reliance in chip technology.

  • Export Controls and Market Impact: The most advanced chip designs from x86 and Arm, known for their high-performance outputs, are restricted from sale to Chinese clients due to U.S. and U.K. export controls. This limitation has spurred Beijing to explore alternatives like RISC-V that are beyond the reach of Western sanctions.
  • Investment in RISC-V: Between 2018 and 2023, Beijing, along with numerous Chinese state entities and research institutes—many of which are under U.S. sanctions—invested a minimum of $50 million in RISC-V related projects. This investment reflects a strategic pivot towards leveraging open-source technology to circumvent technological dependencies.
Table: RISC-V Investment Overview (2018-2023)
EntityInvestmentFocus Area
Beijing and Chinese State Entities$50 millionRISC-V Projects
PLA Academy of Military SciencesNot DisclosedHigh-Performance Chips for Cloud Computing and Smart Cars

The Path Forward

The global chip market is at a crossroads, with geopolitical tensions shaping the future of technology development and trade. China’s foray into RISC-V technology is more than a technical endeavor; it’s a geopolitical maneuver aimed at securing a more autonomous and resilient technological future.

  • Geopolitical Neutrality: The Shanghai government’s Science and Technology Commission highlighted the “geopolitically neutral” advantage of RISC-V, positioning it as a strategic asset in the face of international tensions.
  • Market Share and Future Prospects: Despite its growing prominence, RISC-V currently occupies only a small fraction of the global chip market. However, China’s substantial investments and strategic focus on this architecture could shift the market dynamics, challenging the dominance of traditional standards.

The statement highlights the significance of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Academy of Military Sciences in China publishing a patent that is directly related to the global semiconductor industry. This action is depicted as a crucial step in China’s efforts to redefine its role within the international semiconductor sector. The main points to elaborate on include:

  1. Adoption of the RISC-V Standard: China’s decision to embrace the RISC-V standard, an open-source instruction set architecture (ISA), signifies a strategic pivot towards more open and potentially less sanction-prone technological foundations. Unlike proprietary ISAs, RISC-V allows for customization and innovation without the licensing fees or restrictions imposed by foreign entities. This move is seen as an attempt by China to navigate around the limitations set by Western sanctions, which have targeted China’s access to cutting-edge semiconductor technologies.
  2. Mitigating Impact of Western Sanctions: The publication of the patent is a part of China’s broader strategy to mitigate the impacts of Western sanctions. These sanctions have been a significant barrier to China’s technological advancement, particularly in the semiconductor industry, by restricting access to essential tools, machinery, and intellectual property. By investing in the development of technologies based on the RISC-V standard, China aims to reduce its dependency on Western technologies and counteract the effects of these sanctions.
  3. Securing an Independent Technological Position: China’s efforts in developing its semiconductor capabilities through the RISC-V standard are aimed at securing a more autonomous and influential stance in the global technological hierarchy. This independence is crucial for China’s long-term technological and economic security, allowing it to innovate and compete globally without being hindered by external pressures or dependencies.
  4. Strategic Importance of Semiconductors: The statement underscores the strategic importance of semiconductors, framing them as a cornerstone of modern economies and national security strategies. Semiconductors are essential for a wide range of applications, from consumer electronics to advanced military systems. As such, control over and access to semiconductor technology is a significant geopolitical lever.
  5. Interplay Between Technology, Politics, and Market Forces: The move by the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences to publish a patent in the semiconductor field is indicative of the complex relationship between technological innovation, political ambitions, and market dynamics. This scenario illustrates how nations leverage technology not just for economic gain but as a component of their broader strategic objectives, influencing global power structures and international relations.

In essence, the publication of this patent is more than a mere technological development; it’s a strategic maneuver by China to bolster its technological sovereignty, navigate geopolitical challenges, and assert its position in the global semiconductor industry amidst the ongoing tensions and competitions in international trade and security domains.

Featured Image courtesy of DALL-E by ChatGPT

Yasmeeta Oon

Just a girl trying to break into the world of journalism, constantly on the hunt for the next big story to share.