China’s Ambitious Bid to Reshape the Global Chip Market
In September, a Beijing-based military institute made headlines when it published a patent for a new high-performance chip. This move offered a glimpse of China’s ambitious plan to remake the half-trillion-dollar global chip market and resist U.S. sanctions.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Sciences utilized an open-source standard known as RISC-V to reduce malfunctions in chips for cloud computing and smart cars, as revealed by the patent application. RISC-V is an instruction set architecture used to design everything from smartphone chips to advanced processors for artificial intelligence.
Traditionally, the most common standards in this space have been controlled by Western companies such as Intel, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), and Arm Holdings. However, due to export controls imposed by the U.S. and UK that prevent the sale of advanced x86 and Arm designs to customers in China, Beijing has turned its attention towards RISC-V as part of its strategy to reduce dependence on Western technology.
RISC-V’s open-source nature has made it an attractive option for Chinese entities looking to circumvent these restrictions. The Shanghai government’s Science and Technology Commission highlighted that “the biggest advantage of the RISC-V architecture is that it is geopolitically neutral” in a report published earlier this year.
Chinese state entities and research institutes, many of which are sanctioned by Washington, have invested at least $50 million in projects involving RISC-V between 2018 and 2023. Recent advances and applications of RISC-V in China, many with government funding, have raised hopes that this open-source standard could one day challenge the dominance of x86-Arm architecture.
While Arm continues to be dominant in China, there is growing interest in RISC-V due to its free-to-use nature and simpler scheme that often leads to more power-efficient chips. Half of the more than 10 billion RISC-V chips shipped globally by 2022 were reportedly made in China according to reports from state-run media outlets.
Some experts believe that while there may still be performance gaps between RISC-V chips and those using traditional architectures like Arm, investments from both industry players and government entities will contribute towards closing this gap over time.
However, despite its promise, RISC-V has not yet broken the dominance of x86 and Arm architectures. According to estimates from SHD Group, only 1.9% of all system-on-a-chip units shipped in 2022 had a RISC-V processor.
The interest in RISC-V extends beyond commercial applications into military use as well. Universities and research institutes linked with China’s military have also developed and promoted RISC-V technology recently. For instance, researchers at Beihang University presented a design for a RISC-V chip that processes radar signals at an academic conference last November.
The geopolitical incentives behind investing in emerging standards like RISC-V are clear – they offer potential solutions for achieving technological self-sufficiency while reducing reliance on Western technologies amid escalating tensions between countries.
As we witness continued advancements surrounding technologies like RISC-V within China’s tech landscape, it remains evident that these developments are not only reshaping global markets but also playing pivotal roles within broader geopolitical narratives.