Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology by Chris Miller - review by Tim Stevens

Tim Stevens

Small Yet Mighty

Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology

By

Simon & Schuster 431pp £20
 

In October 2022, the United States Department of Commerce implemented with little warning a set of export control regulations effectively outlawing the export of US semiconductor technology to China. Given China’s reliance on non-Chinese tools, software and facilities in the manufacture of microchips – the silicon semiconductors upon which all information technologies rely – this was potentially a major blow to China’s ambition of global tech dominance. It was also the latest exchange in a decades-long struggle between established and emerging powers for political, economic and military advantage in the field of chip technology.

Based on careful archival research and interviews with key figures, Chip War sets out in exhaustive and compelling detail how we have arrived at a point where the microscopic – billions of nanosized transistors now fit on a single chip – shapes the macropolitical. It is a story of innovation and ingenuity, but also of competitive nationalism and cut-throat corporatism. Chris Miller, an economic historian, deftly relates a tale of dizzying complexity that begins in the Cold War and stretches up to the present day, explaining how and why states and firms have manoeuvred to control these exquisite objects and the means of designing and manufacturing them.

One of Miller’s aims is to demonstrate the materiality of the digital revolution. As states turn to cyberwarfare and informational conflict, and the biggest companies in the world monetise the digital, it can be tempting to think of all this as ‘virtual’, somehow disassociated from the physical world. Chip War disabuses us of that notion, asserting the centrality of physical chips to everything that involves the exchange of digital ones and zeros – which is to say, a huge amount that is of value to modern societies.

Military might and economic superiority, in particular, depend on being able to leverage chip technologies in ever greater volume and with cutting-edge sophistication. Visionary inventors of the 1950s and 1960s, such as the Americans Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce, realised that cramming increased computing power onto tiny wafers of silicon would deliver commercial and national advantage to whoever could do it most efficiently and accurately. This has never been a simple matter of monopolising nose-to-tail chip production, however. The jockeying for position among the major players since the 1960s has brought into being tightly bound global supply chains. Chips may be designed in one place, manufacturing tools in another, and the chips made and assembled into usable devices in yet another, often somewhere in southeast Asia.

Strategic adversaries have therefore often found themselves in uncomfortable positions. Both the United States and China rely heavily on American chip design and Taiwanese manufacturing, for instance. This grants the United States an advantage in some respects, but it also means it cannot afford to ignore Chinese territorial claims to Taiwan. In this context, Miller quite rightly looks into the relative risk appetites of the United States and China with respect to Taiwan.

In addition, Chip War causes us to reflect on the nature of those supply chains. Miller argues that chips were at the heart of how the postwar international order came into being, with the United States offshoring chip manufacturing while continuing to lead the way in technical innovation and intellectual property. This approach still informs its dealings with the countries of southeast Asia, but it is not without risks, as the Taiwan situation illustrates.

Miller pushes back slightly against claims that the global supply chains for chips are fragile. While he does acknowledge that the majority of semiconductor manufacturers are situated in the earthquake-prone Pacific Rim, he counters the proposition that the recent pandemic represented a major challenge to global chip production. Headlines about chip shortages, he reveals, were more a function of increased demand during lockdown than reduced supply. Nevertheless, he does not minimise the potential disruption to supply chains that might come in the future. A single firm in Taiwan produces over 30 per cent of all chips annually, so there are obvious possible chokepoints.

Chip War is also a story of capital. Driven by profit and spurred on by Moore’s Law – the 1965 proposition of chip pioneer Gordon Moore that the computing power on each chip would double every couple of years – US companies have for decades sought cheaper labour through de-unionisation and offshoring to Asia. Further analysis of the subject would point to the racialised and gendered aspects of globalised chip production. It would also expose the insidious effects of extractive capitalism on the planet. All the raw materials for chips have to be mined from the earth somewhere and by someone, and extraordinary amounts of energy are required to do so. The environmental and human costs of this extraction, and of the ultimate energy consumed by trillions of chips, are for all of us to consider.

Chip War is likely to find a positive reception in policy communities and among the wider public, first because its analysis is shrewd and insightful, and second because the writing is taut and possesses the qualities of a good thriller. As a historian, Miller is not necessarily looking to provide answers to a set of unpalatable geopolitical problems, but he does a first-rate job of setting out the issues in an accessible fashion.

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