The Chip War Between the US and China Rages On

The Chip War Between the US and China Rages On
A worker produces semiconductor chips at a workshop in Suqian, in China's eastern Jiangsu Province, on Feb. 28, 2023. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
John Mills

There have been three “Straits” crises between the United States and China regarding Taiwan.

There were two in the 1950s and one in the 1990s. The one in the 1990s avoided combat operations, but the two in the 1950s saw exchanges of fire and casualties. The second one in 1958 showed more advanced Chinese aircraft taking advantage of older Taiwanese F-86 jets of the Korean War period.
That changed when the Americans provided the early Sidewinder missile, which made the dogfights more than equal (similar to the effect of the Javelin missile in Ukraine). After several losses, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) backed down, knowing that plentiful, more advanced American fighters were nearby in the air and on Taiwanese bases if the Sidewinders on the Taiwanese F-86s didn’t work.

With the consistent, aggressive challenges to Taiwanese sovereignty by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since President Joe Biden signed the Fiscal Year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act in December 2022, perhaps there is a fourth “Straits Crisis” going on, but with a bit of a twist. The points of friction and contact aren’t just military but also trade, economic, and technical—and they’re worldwide.

A unique centerpiece of the battlefront has been added with the computer chips that Taiwan’s TSMC has become adept at making. The Biden Team has chosen to ratchet up the pressure on China on computer chips. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo has clarified that “we are trying to choke their military capacity” by denying computer chips to China.

Restrictions on Chips to China

Ms. Raimondo’s comments were directly pointed at China leveraging computer chips for weapons platforms. The reality is that these chips are dual-use; they can be used for weapons, but they’re also vital for appliances, cars, and 5G phones.

Although the Sidewinder missile of the 1950s had very early versions of simplified “computer” processing before modern era “chips,” contemporary missiles such as the Javelin, HIMARS Rockets, Patriot, or even “smart” sea mines need cutting edge, advanced computing capabilities that are found in chips.

China’s advanced missiles, such as the DF-17 Hypersonic or the DF-26 guided ballistic missile, very likely leverage computer chips made in China or absconded with as part of willful supply chain theft or used in violation of stated terms and conditions of the method by which the chips were acquired.

The DF-17 and DF-26 need advanced processing power to conduct their precision navigation and timing to successfully engage their intended targets. The Chinese forces need chips to maintain the existing stocks of missiles, but also new missiles, routine maintenance, and technical improvements to ensure the DF-17, DF-26, and other missiles maintain superiority over the countermeasures of the United States, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Australia, the UK, India, and other countries that may become embroiled in conflict with China.

Without a steady flow of existing and improved computer chips, Chinese missiles will become less reliable, and Chinese military leaders will lose confidence in their weapons systems. The Biden Team seems to be using the chip struggle as a leverage point to restrain and limit Chinese military adventurism.

Biden Team Doesn’t Want to Decouple From China

The wisdom of the Biden Team, from at least the Raimondo view, may make sense. However, there are several problems. The Chinese consumption of chips for consumer demand is also a vital factor in managing the discontent level of the domestic Chinese population. On the surface, the Raimondo view doesn’t reveal how “good” chips for consumer demand will be allowed while “bad” chips for military applications will be restricted when they may be the same chip.
The message is also very inconsistent from the Biden Team. As the first of four to visit China, Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought reproachment, his first visit being rescheduled in the wake of the Chinese spy balloon that traveled over U.S. missile fields and bomber bases. A second crisis occurred that almost endangered the rescheduled Blinken trip with the revelation of China occupying the former Soviet spy base in Lourdes, Cuba. The Blinken trip was rewarded with an announcement that the spy base in Cuba would also be matched with Chinese military training in Cuba. This announcement seemed to be a pointed expression of how the Chinese viewed Mr. Blinken’s trip.
Shortly after, Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen visited with an advance plea for no decoupling. “Decoupling” is often associated with former President Donald Trump by the Biden Team. Still, Chinese leader Xi Jinping was the first to advance the idea, years before Mr. Trump became president.
Special envoy John Kerry then visited, offering grace to China as the world’s largest polluter in return for new climate talks.

The four disparate views of relations from the same administration, with the latest being an attempt to choke China, are sending a wide spectrum of messages.

Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and the United States dominate world chip production.

Japan, South Korea, and the United States have announced a new trilateral security agreement. While Taiwan’s TSMC makes 80 percent of the world’s chips, Japan, South Korea, and the United States contribute to most of the remaining 20 percent of the world’s chip production capacity. The reason for this new security arrangement is largely because of regional tension caused by the Chinese regime’s aggression toward Taiwan.
The new belligerency by communist China reveals a very hard problem set. China’s agenda is now being driven by its real need for computer chips, which Taiwan has mastered. This means that the Chinese regime must take Taiwan in a manner that won’t damage TSMC’s six or so major “fabs” (fabrication centers) in Taiwan, but the TSMC workforce and their families are also needed. This is a very challenging set of requirements for any Chinese invasion to be successful. Taiwan has been part of a large retrograde of TSMC production capacity to new plants in the United States.

Whether for military or civilian use, computer chips are moving away from the grasp of overt Chinese control while the fourth “Straits Crisis” takes on a new scale and scope.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Col. (Ret.) John Mills is a national security professional with service in five eras: Cold War, Peace Dividend, War on Terror, World in Chaos, and now, Great Power Competition. He is the former director of cybersecurity policy, strategy, and international affairs at the Department of Defense. Mr. Mills is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy. He is author of “The Nation Will Follow” and “War Against the Deep State.” ColonelRETJohn on Substack, GETTR, and Truth Social
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