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As the chip race heats up, a new multipolar world is taking shape

I-HWA CHENG - AFP - Getty Images

Rakesh Kumar is a professor at the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Illinois and the author of Reluctant Technophiles: India’s Complicated Relationship with Technology.

In a stunning example of how geopolitical powers are restricting access to chips to their rivals, while maneuvering to stimulate chip production at home, TSMC and ASML now have the capability to remotely disable chipmaking tools if China invades Taiwan. With all the recent furious action around chips, questions about what the new status quo will look like arise. Will some countries outspend and box out others? Or will multiple power centers emerge, perhaps targeting separate niches?

There are three distinct motivations behind the clamor we are seeing around chipmaking. For some, it is about economic and national security. Semiconductors are critical to both, so securing access to chips through local manufacturing provides assurance. For others, it is about geopolitical leverage. Control over chips allows control over rival economies and defenses. And for many, it is about ownership in a large and growing industry—the chip market is predicted to double and exceed one trillion dollars by 2033.

However, political and economic realities must be considered. Advanced chip plants require tens of billions of dollars in yearly investments to start and sustain, in addition to access to the required tools and technologies. Not many countries can make such a commitment. Others may not have access to the tools and technologies. Costs are lower for legacy chip manufacturing, but the low profit margins on these chips require cheap labor and resources.


Once both factors are considered, a likely equilibrium starts coming into focus. For advanced chip manufacturing, only the U.S., China, Japan, and the European Union can afford the required patient capital. However, for Japan and the European Union, chip access has not been an issue, and motivation for any geopolitical leverage is weak, especially with their currently struggling economies.

China has a strong motivation to commit to investments since its access to advanced chips as well as chip-making tools and technologies has been restricted. They will also likely succeed, either by developing homegrown versions of the restricted tools and technologies or by developing alternate techniques such as advanced packaging to build equally powerful chips.

The U.S. also has strong economic and national security motivations. It will likely get access to advanced chip manufacturing soon, either because an American chip company such as Intel catches up, or a foreign company such as TSMC or Samsung is forced to set up advanced chip fabrication plants locally. Overall, advanced chip manufacturing will reach a steady state similar to oil: There will be a small number of producers—Taiwan, South Korea, the U.S., and China—for something that everybody needs.

The story will likely play out differently for legacy chips. It is much cheaper and less risky to manufacture legacy chips. Relatively low-cost countries such as India will get into legacy chip manufacturing, primarily to become players in this growing but low-margin industry and use their large local markets to support the industry. Countries such as Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam may follow suit as they have large enough local markets or existing ecosystems to make a smooth transition to high-volume legacy chip manufacturing. The U.K., Japan, U.S., and European Union may also enhance their legacy chip manufacturing, primarily to secure access to these chips. However, due to high manufacturing costs in these countries, they may use tariffs to support local manufacturing. Overall, legacy chip manufacturing may look like the automobile industry—dynamic and with many players.

What would this new chip world order mean for the producers and the non-producers? Since a small number of countries will own advanced chip manufacturing, they will use it for leverage and may control access. It will aggravate geopolitical tensions and accelerate geopolitical realignments as geopolitical allies become advanced chip allies and vice versa. Second, since access to legacy chips is likely going to be easier, only a small subset of non-producing nations will have to pick sides. In fact, we will likely see legacy chips from multiple producers in the same geographical market, some more dominant than others. For the producers of both chip types, there will be attempts to outspend and box out rivals. However, considering the motivations involved, the key players will continue standing, some by employing protectionist measures.

The countries standing on the sidelines will need to be particularly careful. They will be tempted, but it will often not make sense to enter chip manufacturing due to low margins and high costs. In this new chip world, chip nationalism will need to be avoided at all costs.

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