If there is one thing everyone in Washington can agree on, it is the need to be tough against China.
One of the cornerstones of America’s present strategy are its efforts to slow Chinese technological advancement. This is seen as fundamental to protecting American national security and economic prosperity in the long run.
These efforts principally focus on denying Beijing ready access to advanced western technology and the tools to make it. For example, the United States has enacted a series of measures to try to keep advanced semiconductors out of Chinese hands. In addition to domestic restrictions, it has also successfully pursued export restriction agreements with the Netherlands and Japan, home of the world’s most advanced semiconductor tooling equipment.
Unfortunately, the past year has demonstrated the permeability of many of these restrictions and the need for America to improve its approach. For example, the specific U.S. rules for the control of exports of advanced semiconductors were just finalized — a year after the restrictions were announced.
While moving faster through government processes is essential, key vulnerabilities remain. Among these are Beijing’s continued ability to leverage open-source semiconductor and AI technologies.
Open-source technology is, by definition, designed to be accessible by anyone. It works best in a globally interconnected world with few economic frictions and limited geopolitical conflict. Yet, that is not the world of today. The United States therefore needs to find ways to close this open-source gap — and to do so quickly.
So, where are U.S.-China relations at present?
Over the past decade, relations between the two countries have grown steadily more contentious. At points, the two governments have increased their levels of dialogue. At present, for example, numerous high-ranking officials, including U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, have traveled to China in hopes of thawing the icy relationship between the two powers. And President Biden himself recently met with Chinese President Xi Jingping on the margins of this year’s APEC summit. But despite these “hopeful” headlines, the bilateral trendlines all point toward greater friction. Each country is deeply focused on out-maneuvering the other in their multifaceted competition.
In the U.S. case, the stick of export controls is complemented by the carrot of public sector investments in the industry. The 2022 CHIPS and Science Act — the $52.7 billion package created to fund domestic semiconductor industry growth — is at the center of the carrots. It has generated semiconductor investments totaling over $150 billion since its passage.
In response, China has taken numerous steps to evade these American rules and policies. It has also moved to fortify its domestic technology system with a national strategy that is based on open-source chip architecture.
Although it is challenging, the U.S. cannot afford to ignore this problem any longer if it is to guard against Chinese leadership on artificial intelligence, computing and military tools.
A good example of the Chinese strategy in action was the recently unveiled China RISC-V Industry Alliance. This initiative is, in essence, a Chinese patent alliance for RISC-V technology — an open-source architecture that is free and available to any chipmaker — at its corresponding national summit.
The agreement allows nine top chip design companies to avoid internal litigation by sharing the patent for this open architecture, and could allow them to create new chips at an unprecedented rate. A Chinese Academy of Engineering official reinforced the point by stating: “The future of RISC-V is in China, and the development of China’s semiconductor chip technology market (are) inseparable.”
This is not a new trend. Even before the RISC-V Summit took place, Chinese tech firm Huawei was accused by the Semiconductor Industry Association of building a collection of secret chip-making facilities across China under other company names. In other words, China is successfully circumventing U.S. restrictions — and is telling the world in no uncertain terms that it plans to use open-source technology to do so.
The Biden administration and Congress must not ignore this threat to U.S. national security. The White House has many tools at its disposal for anchoring a real strategy to curb open-source chip development in China. Congress also has a key role for addressing this threat to national security; it could start by holding hearings on this open-source challenge and providing recommendations for next steps.
The House Select Committee on China, a genuinely bipartisan body, is reportedly planning events to discuss ways to penalize China for intellectual property theft while boosting trade with allies. Its report is due to be released by the end of 2023. It should include a detailed plan on RISC-V and the broader open-source loophole in U.S. law. This loophole risks allowing open-source semiconductor and artificial intelligence technology to freely flow to China.
If America is going to win this new technology war, it cannot afford to leave stones unturned. When it comes to semiconductors, direct and timely policy action is required so that issues such as open-source technology like RISC-V are handled before they spiral any further out of control.
Eric Miller is a global fellow with the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan policy forum for tackling global issues through independent research and open dialogue.
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