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The Great Chips War

Following the US Commerce Department’s announcement of severe new restrictions on sales of advanced semiconductors and other US high-tech goods to China, the Sino-American rivalry has entered an important new phase. Even under the best circumstances, China will have a difficult time adapting to its new reality.

STOCKHOLM – In addition to dealing with the fallout from open warfare in eastern Europe, the world is witnessing the start of a full-scale economic war between the United States and China over technology. This conflict will be highly consequential, and it is escalating rapidly. Earlier this month, the US Commerce Department introduced severe new restrictions on the sale of advanced semiconductors and other US high-tech goods to China. While Russia has used missiles to try to cripple Ukraine’s energy and heating infrastructure, the US is now using export restrictions to curtail China’s military, intelligence, and security services.

Moreover, in late August, US President Joe Biden signed the CHIPS Act, which includes subsidies and other measures to bolster America’s domestic semiconductor industry. Semiconductors are, and will remain, at the heart of the twenty-first century economy. Without microchips, our smartphones would be dumb phones, our cars wouldn’t move, our communications networks wouldn’t function, any form of automation would be unthinkable, and the new era of artificial intelligence that we are entering would remain the stuff of sci-fi novels. Controlling the design, fabrication, and value chains that produce these increasingly important components of our lives is thus of the utmost importance. The new chip war is a war for control of the future.

The semiconductor value chain is hyper-globalized, but the US and its closest allies control all the key nodes. Chip design is heavily concentrated in America, production would not be possible without advanced equipment from Europe, and fabrication of the most advanced chips – including those that are critical for AI – is located exclusively in East Asia. The most important player by far is Taiwan, but South Korea is also in the picture.

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