Chip War. Chris Miller.

Miller, Chris. Chip War. Scribner New York, 2022. NF; 12/22.

Don’t let the awkward title fool you. This is about the geopolitical effect of semiconductors, not competition between McDonald’s and Burger King. I read nonfiction among stories and novels either for inspiration (Alain de Botton, Annie Dillard) or just trying to be informed (Denis Noble, Antonio Damasio). Chip War is definitely in the latter category and it did the job well on this subject for me.

Dr Miller is a history academic at Tufts University who has focused his work on Russia and in this book on a different subject. His accomplishments reviewed online look impressive and (although I couldn’t find his age anywhere) he appears young enough to have many decades of professional work ahead. Too bad he’s not a particularly charming writer but the breadth and clarity of his understanding go a long way to filling that gap.

I didn’t understand the extent to which the technology of more and more sophisticated semiconductors or computer chips drives and is fed by the world’s giant economies and how it informs their military. Chip technology isn’t advanced only in the United States and China. There are factories in Taiwan, Holland, and South Korea that are unique leaders in one aspect or another of its development and production. The machines in these places cost billions and are designed and run by some of the best-trained engineers anywhere. The race for better and faster computation has replaced the Cold War arms race, and Silicon Valley is no longer necessarily way out in front.

Formerly, the United States’ easy invasion of Iraq in 2003 (never mind everything that followed) didn’t owe its quick success to an excess of firepower (tanks, troops, guns) but to American weapons being much more accurate, with contemporary state-of-art computing on board. The ability to detect, follow, listen to, and destroy enemy military objects continues to rely for superiority on increasingly sophisticated hardware and software which relies in turn on better and better semiconductors. China has publicly committed to aggressively pursuing this enterprise.

Part of the sophistication race involves miniaturization. Chips are made by extremely accurate lasers and the most recent advance is the use of “extreme ultraviolet lithography” that brings the size of connections in chips down to millionths of a metre. Miller says “The Dutch company ASML builds 100 percent of the world’s extreme ultraviolet lithography machines, without which cutting-edge chips are simply impossible to make. OPEC’s 40 percent share of world oil production looks unimpressive by comparison.” These and similar machines are the most complex and sophisticated technical inventions in history. Their engineering, supply, and bringing-online involves almost unimaginable complexity, overcoming of apparently insurmountable technical problems, the brightest brains in engineering, and of course enormous cost, over decades.

While governments, aware of the effect of extreme technology on their military advantage, provide funding for this kind of thing, it remains even in China a commercial business. And China is the fastest-growing consumer of for example smart phones so businesses in the West must compete to meet that consumption. Miller says a U.S. semiconductor executive wryly summed things up to a White House official: “Our fundamental problem is that our number one customer is our number one competitor.”

Asia in general remains a source of relatively cheap labour. American semiconductor firms like Intel and Texas Instruments could not have survived without assembling their sophisticated electronics offshore. It was through this dynamic that Taiwan, for example, under the leadership of American-Taiwanese businessman Morris Chang, developed world-leading chip manufacturing foundries at his Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). This led most of the world’s leading electronic design companies to contract out manufacture of their designs to TSMC. It remains another essential resource worldwide that would be nearly impossible even for governments like the United States and China to duplicate.

One of the conclusions I was left with after reading this fascinating book is that it will be difficult in the foreseeable future for any one country to corner superiority in the design, production, and use of cutting edge semiconductor technology. There is too much interdependence. But with Holland and South Korea as allies the United States appears so far to be managing to keep up with China. Another conclusion however is that Taiwan, bearing in mind the claims China continues to make that it is not independent, is critical to world semiconductor technology. Miller says that the US has admitted

…that China’s military modernization has closed the gap between the two superpowers’ militaries, especially in the contested waters off China’s coast. Taiwan isn’t simply the source of the advanced chips that both countries’ militaries are betting on. It’s also the most likely future battleground.

He goes on to say that although the United States and its allies may be able to force TSMC to decentralize and that although this

… might begin to reduce the world’s reliance on chipmaking in Taiwan… (f)or now, Washington is unwilling to exert the pressure that would be required. The entire world’s dependence on Taiwan, therefore, continues to grow.

Plugging away at my own work and life I had no idea about a lot of what’s contained in this book. Definitely an eye-opener the surprising facts in which kept my attention. Worth the effort if you find what I’ve said here of interest.

9.2/7.8

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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