Chips, also known as microchips or semiconductors, are core components in nearly all electronics, from smartphones and laptops to fighter jets, refrigerators, and cars. Their importance has been highlighted over the past year as pandemic-related shortages fueled product delays, factory shutdowns, and trade disputes. At the center of it all is one company, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which manufactures more than 80 percent of the world’s most advanced chips. TSMC has emerged as a flash point in U.S.-China tensions, and could even play a role in sparking a conflict between the countries if Beijing attempts to reunify Taiwan with the mainland.
In this episode, four expert guests break down the importance of chips to the global economy, innovation, and security, and assess the outlook for cooperation and conflict as countries attempt to secure their supplies.
“The Time Is Now for a Trade Deal With Taiwan,” David Sacks and Jennifer Hillman
“Why China-Taiwan Relations Are So Tense,” Lindsay Maizland
“China’s Quest for Self-Reliance in the Fourteenth Five-Year Plan,” Lauren Dudley
“Innovation and National Security: Keeping Our Edge,” Adam Segal and Anya Schmemann
“Supply Chains and Demand,” Richard N. Haass
“Is Industrial Policy Making a Comeback?” Anshu Siripurapu
From Don Clark
“Despite Chip Shortage, Chip Innovation Is Booming,” New York Times
“Semiconductors and the U.S.-China Innovation Race,” FP Analytics
“Would China Invade Taiwan for TSMC?” Diplomat
Watch or Listen
0:17 “This is the most severe shortage of semiconductors in years.” https://youtu.be/e3vlTKfqtdY?t=17
0:05 “The U.S. Senate passed a bill that would give manufacturers more incentives to make semiconductor chips.” https://youtu.be/SI_LfArQusQ?t=5
00:00 “Taiwan wants to make sure that it keeps its leading position in the semiconductor industry, the sector has been caught up in U.S.-China trade tensions.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTI4aSHx0R0
0:08 “We are in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century. We are at a great inflection point in history.” https://youtu.be/2ET9ljEJA0g?t=8
Right now you’re hearing my voice because of a silicon chip. Hundreds of them in fact. You may know them by other terms, like microchip or semiconductor. As the world has digitized, chips have become the lifeblood of innovation and the global economy, they’re in almost everything we use.
Access to chips can make or break a country’s economic future, and as shortages pile up, countries are scrambling to figure out how to ensure their access.
At the heart of the story is one company, TSMC, which manufactures chips that are found in everything from iPhones to fighter jets. No other company can do what they do, and as a result, the world depends on them. But TSMC is located on the island of Taiwan, and that puts it at the center of dangerous tensions between China and the United States.
I’m Gabrielle Sierra and this is Why It Matters, today, our fragile relationship with the chips that power our world.
So what is a silicon chip?
Chips are the descendants of the original transistor, which was a - kind of a switching device. It can do all kinds of things. And what happened is they started to put many, many transistors on an individual piece of silicon.
This is Don Clark. He has been writing about tech for more than 30 years, including 23 as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. These days he’s a contributor for the New York Times.
Now, the latest silicon chips can have billions of tiny, tiny transistors on there that can store data and do calculations.
So, chips are essentially the little electronic foundation to the entire global tech economy.
This is Rebecca Heilweil. She is a reporter at Vox Recode.
These little chips are basically powering the ins and outs of all the little decisions that make up the devices that we use.
A chip is now used in just about everything you can imagine. I was fighting this morning with my espresso machine because it's got chips in it, it was telling me that I couldn't do it because I hadn't done the mandatory cleaning it was monitoring for.
Your refrigerator, your computer, any video game console you have, you know, your phone.
Your microwave, your dishwasher, your Alexa smart speaker, your car, there are many chips in your car.
Any kind of electronic device has chips, and how advanced they are depends on what kind of device you're using but they’re basically in everything right now.
And it's not just consumer products. The construction equipment we use to build homes, schools and offices requires chips. The medical field relies heavily on them too. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s another huge driver for chip demand...data centers. You know, the massive server systems that power the entire internet, from Google to Linkedin to Reddit. Every time you use these services, there are chips on the other side providing the information.
People particularly notice this now that we're streaming everything in our lives, from Netflix, to homeschooling to whatever. But for the big broadcasters in the old days, if they were broadcasting over the air, people could log on with their TVs, but they didn't have to do anything to their facilities, they were just beaming the signals to all these different people. In the broadband streaming era, each person that logs on, basically, they have to buy more computing capacity to serve that person. So the more streams there are, the more chips are consumed.
Every photo uploaded to Instagram, every video on YouTube. All of it requires more computing power. To stay in the tech race, countries need a steady stream of new chips. But before we can understand their geopolitical importance, we first have to understand a bit more about how the chip industry works.
So, we all know that computing power gets better over time. Every few years we’re offered a new generation of smartphones, gaming consoles, and laptops that are faster and more powerful than ever before.
A lot of this progress is fueled by improvements to chips. But it doesn’t just happen. In order to push forward, scientists and engineers have to figure out how to pack more and more transistors into the same space, and companies invest billions to help them do it. When they succeed, the payoff is huge. Last year the semiconductor industry reported $439 billion in revenue.
We must be making them by the millions right now. I mean, how big is the demand?
I mean, literally, trillions of chips get made every year. And they go from the price of less than a penny to thousands of dollars. So there's many different varieties of these things.
Do you think that you can give me a sort of step by step of how a chip is produced? What do the supply chains look like?
The supply chains are incredibly complicated. It starts with raw materials. So you have silicon, which is the ingredient in sand. And so they make this big cylinder thing. And then they slice it up and make wafers, which are usually 12 inches across. And then they start laying down and taking off materials from those wafers. And the most important step is called photolithography where they trace the patterns of circuitry on those for each chip that's going to be made on the wafer. There's a particular company called ASML in the Netherlands, which dominates that photolithography step. But they now make a machine called an extreme ultraviolet lithography machine, each one of these machines is about $150 million a pop. It's probably the most complicated machine humans have ever created. And they are the only supplier of it. After that, all these chemicals are added, things are etched, things are baked. Things are laid on. Anyway, once they have that wafer created, they cut it up with these diamond saws to create the individual chips, and they're sent to separate companies that wrap them in plastic and make little connectors around them. And then they test them. And so really, the whole supply chain gets really complicated because it includes all the raw materials. It includes all those companies that make machines that are used to do all these processing steps. It includes the companies that have the big factories, the big fabs, they're called like TSMC, and Intel and Samsung. And then there's the companies that package them and test them. And then various levels of purchasers and buyers and sellers. So they'd say now this, by some estimates, that the average chip crosses a national border 70 times before it reaches its end destination.
Wow. That's quite a lot of steps. Quite a lot of travel for one little chip.
And guess what? If we thought demand was high before, the pandemic kicked it into overdrive. Netflix added 37 million users. Zoom went from 10 million to 300 million daily meeting participants. All of these processes need chips. To understand this better, we spoke to Ajit Manocha, the president and CEO of SEMI, the world’s leading semiconductor industry association.
So we're on a growth path to start with, and then the pandemic hit us. Now, what did the pandemic do? Immediately we went homeschooling, working from home. We stopped coming to the offices. Social media companies became pretty big. The number of laptops and the mobile devices that we needed last year was unprecedented. I mean, I give the example, I have three grandkids in the ages of three to six. Each one of them have two devices. They are homeschooling, they have their own laptop or iPad, and they know how to turn it on and how to communicate with the class, how to sit in the Zoom classroom. So, imagine it's going on all over the world. Virtually, every semiconductor company is reporting record revenue. The demand is high.
When supply chains are stretched to their max, and demand continues to increase, you end up with shortages. And that’s exactly what happened over the last year. The consequences were so serious that even now, as vaccinations are rolling out in many countries, shortages and product delays continue to pile up. And the product that got hit hardest during the pandemic is not one you’d immediately associate with chips....cars.
You've written about how over the last year, we've seen this chip shortage due to the pandemic affecting global supply chains. So do you think you can take me sort of step by step through that story, sort of how it started and who it ended up affecting?
Sure. So at the beginning of the pandemic, some automakers were sort of estimating, okay, the pandemic means there's going to be an economic crisis. And obviously, people aren't going to be buying as many cars. So we're going to basically jump off the line for chips, because we don't think we're going to need as many. Then suddenly, things reverse. And the economic recovery starts happening again. And some car manufacturers want to basically get back on line, get their chips, but suddenly, there's all these device makers who have been demanding chips the entire time. And now, the automakers are still dealing with that shortage and trying to catch up. And at the baseline, it takes a while to get a chip, it's not like you can just call up a chip manufacturer and say, Hi, I need like 10,000 more chips next week, can you just make some extra, that's not how it works. We're talking about weeks and weeks and weeks of lead time. And now we see GM and companies like that having to leave their workers idle and, and close down factories, because there aren't enough chips to keep their manufacturing going. And in the US, that's a real pain point, because there are so many auto workers and that's a population a lot of people really, really care about.
0:24 “Car dealerships are bracing for lean months as computer chips shortages are causing supply nightmares thanks to the pandemic.” https://youtu.be/ffNhUgYHLlo?t=24
0:11 “Kia will shut down for two days due to supply issues.” https://youtu.be/ffNhUgYHLlo?t=11
00:00 “Hyundai is the latest firm to say it is paying a price for the global shortage of computer chips.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kp8PgUVfNXc 0
0:47 “It’s not just here we are feeling the impact, it is everywhere throughout our nation. Now keep in mind the vast majority of new cars are built with these computer chips. So in short, no computer chips, no new cars.”
That seems like a real fragile system right there.
It is fragile. And, back when we were having a shortage of personal protective equipment coming from China, people started thinking, hey, you know, some things are strategic, we can't rely on foreign places to supply some of these things that are just really necessary. So between the shutdown of the auto plants, which cost a lot of union workers their jobs, I mean, that puts a lot of pressure on a democratic president. Meanwhile, you had this kind of gradual feeling that the US was getting too dependent on foreign suppliers, even allies in Taiwan and South Korea. So there's been a separate push in Washington to help the semiconductor industry and they're now proposing a $50 billion infusion to help spur more US manufacturing.
In fact, since our interview with Don, the Senate passed a $250 billion bill that aimed at boosting U.S. tech competitiveness, including $52 billion for chip production. And the U.S. isn’t alone. Countries all over the world have recognized that access to chips is essential, and they are making big investments in an attempt to reduce their dependence on other countries.
The epicenter of that dependence is TSMC, located one hundred miles off China’s coast on the island of Taiwan. TSMC’s rise has left rivals like Intel almost a decade behind, and made it one of the world’s most valuable companies. At the same time it has become a target of U.S.-China competition, and according to some analysts, could even pull the United States into armed conflict. More on that after the break.
To understand TSMC’s enormous power, you have to understand their place in the global semiconductor industry. Companies like Intel, Samsung, and AMD design chips. TSMC, on the other hand, doesn’t design chips at all, it simply takes the designs from clients and then manufactures them.
It wasn’t always this way. Most designers used to manufacture their own chips. Intel still does. But as the semiconductor business grew over the years, skyrocketing demand and high manufacturing costs prompted many designers to outsource the manufacturing process to third-party fabrication plants.
Morris Chang who is founder of TSMC, he came up with the idea that why not we create a wafer fab foundry, where we will actually put all the investments and manufacture for the companies who are very good in designing chips. And the manufacturing companies will take the blueprints and they will start fabricating based upon what the chip is supposed to be in final shape. And TSMC did a very good job of making that happen, and pretty soon, people realize this is very good business for us. Now, we can spend more money and time and effort on chip design and design a lot more chips instead of spending more money on building fabs.
TSMC has gotten better at it than anyone else on earth, earning 39,000 patents for their manufacturing process along the way. Today they serve over 500 clients, including Apple, Sony, Huawei, Alibaba, and the U.S. Department of Defense.
When you look at the company, it's staggering. They just announced that they're going to invest $100 billion in the next three years. They are absolutely at the leading edge and there are very few, if any competitors.
$100 billion, by one company, that’s almost twice as much as the spending approved by the U.S. Senate. This is David Sacks, by the way. He is a research fellow at the Council, where his work focuses on U.S.-China relations, U.S.-Taiwan relations, and Chinese foreign policy.
So around 90% of the world's most advanced chips are made by TSMC on Taiwan. And of course, Taiwan is a geopolitical flashpoint for the United States and for China.
Taiwan and China have a volatile relationship, which puts global chip supplies at risk. In order to understand this risk, we need to do a bit of history.
In the aftermath of World War II, China underwent a long and bloody civil war. There were two factions: the Nationalists, and the Chinese Communist Party. In 1949, the Nationalists were defeated, and fled to their stronghold on the island of Taiwan. Since then, Taiwan has been governed independently from mainland China, with its own currency, passports, and military.
Still, Beijing maintains that Taiwan is and always will be part of its territory. For a long time now the schism has been a very touchy issue; for China, for Taiwan, and for countries that want to interact with them. At the heart of the problem is a single worry: will China someday invade Taiwan in an attempt to reunify the island?
Today Taiwan is a thriving democracy with multiple peaceful transitions of power, firm civilian control over the military and a vibrant civil society. And from the Chinese perspective, Taiwan is viewed as a symbol that the civil war is not yet over. They believe that Taiwan has to become a part of China sooner or later, and they have reserved the right to use force to bring that about. The United States official position is that Taiwan's future is to be determined. So we don't take a view on Taiwan's legal status. But what we do emphasize is that anything that happens with respect to Taiwan has to come about peacefully and with the consent of the people on Taiwan. But still the United States has certain commitments to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act, namely to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons and to maintain the capacity to come to Taiwan's defense without actually saying that the United States will come to Taiwan's defense during a crisis.
If you’re a bit confused it’s not your fault. U.S. policy on Taiwan is ambiguous by design, and it centers on having the ability to defend Taiwan from China while not committing to do so. It has always been a very touchy situation. And now the world’s most advanced and important chip manufacturer has been added to the mix.
If China is able to take over Taiwan, it can project power into the Pacific from the east coast of Taiwan. It can essentially regulate shipping in the South China sea and exert leverage on shipping lanes that end up in South Korea and Japan. So those are the traditional arguments that have been given for why the United States should defend Taiwan. But with the emergence of TSMC, and a growing recognition of its centrality to the global economy and to the technologies of the future including military technologies, it is increasingly part of the debate. So should the United States defend Taiwan's democracy? Should it defend Taiwan because of its strategic location? And also, should it defend Taiwan because it is the world's only producer of the leading edge semiconductors? And how critical that is for US defense applications, for instance.
I recently heard someone call TSMC ‘Taiwan's silicon shield’. So how important is the company for Taiwan and its goals?
So I think that Taiwan and TSMC both understand the centrality of TSMC to Taiwan. So for instance, Taiwan is having to ration water right now for the island because it didn't have the same storms that it usually gets. And what it's been doing is, it’s let all the water flow to TSMC that it needs to produce semiconductors, and it's rationing it for households elsewhere. And to me, that really reveals that Taiwan understands the importance of TSMC to its economy, to its society and also strategically.
So, Taiwan understands that TSMC raises its profile, and makes it a more essential partner across the world. The United States understands that without TSMC, it would lose access to the chips that keep its economy and military moving.
And China, for its part, is navigating many of the same fears.
China's fears have already manifested themselves, which is that the United States has been able to get TSMC to stop selling chips to Chinese companies like Huawei. And while China likes to throw a lot of money at problems like this, and assume that if it just spends billions and billions of dollars it can catch up with TSMC, it has so far made very little progress. It's still years behind TSMC. And while it's trying to catch up with TSMC, TSMC is already working on the next level.
Are we worried that semiconductors might pave the road to conflict? I mean, how do we avoid the trap of thinking that conflict is just inevitable?
Yeah. So to put this in perspective, China's official line is that it still prefers peaceful unification. And so, what that means is actually using an array of coercive tactics, short of force, to convince the Taiwanese people that their future is inextricably tied to China. And that the best outcome for them is unification with the mainland. And so, I think it's important to still keep in mind that using force is their last option.
Will China eventually attempt to reunify Taiwan by force? If they did, would it pull the United States into war? And would the U.S. and other countries lose access to TSMC’s chips if China succeeded? These aren’t questions you commonly hear in the tech world, but they are the questions that many countries are asking themselves as shortages spread and tensions increase. As a result, many have decided that microchips should be considered strategically essential, and that they should spend billions to figure out how to make them on their own.
0:00 “Prompted by the crippling Semiconductor supply crunch around the world, U.S. President Joe Biden held a meeting with business leaders, stressing the need to invest in what he called semiconductor infrastructure.”
0:39 “I have received a letter from 23 senators, bipartisan letter, and 42 house members republican and democrat. Supporting the chips for America program. I’ve been saying for some time now, China and the rest of the world is not waiting, and there is no reason why Americans should wait.”
0:28 “So Beijing has made chips a top priority for its 5 year plan. Independence is one of 5 “fundamentals" of China’s economic development.”
But as it turns out chip independence can’t just be built overnight.
So president Biden has $50 billion for the semiconductor industry in his infrastructure package, but that's just a drop in the bucket. The semiconductor industry association estimates that the United States would have to spend north of $1 trillion over a decade to become self-sufficient for its chips. It's going to be very hard to become self-sufficient because it's frankly just cheaper to build these in Taiwan and Taiwan has the engineering talent already in place. So it's going to be very difficult for the United States to close this gap.
In the semiconductor business, they talk about the learning curve, which is all about making more working chips on each wafer, and getting their yield up. So you're more profitable and more productive. And so you just have to keep producing these things, to learn all the little tweaks and knobs and temperature settings and chemical adjustments you gotta make. So there is a tendency, once a company gets in front, for them to stay in front.
That doesn’t mean the U.S. is giving up the chase. If the Senate-approved bill passes in its current form, it would provide $52 billion over five years to boost chip production and research. Intel plans to spend $20 billion to build two new plants. And the U.S. is subsidizing TSMC’s new $12 billion factory in Arizona.
Other world leaders are making big moves too - the EU plans to invest up to $60 billion in chip design and production over the next 2-3 years. China plans to invest $118 billion as part of its most recent five year plan.
Chip production is expensive. But money isn’t the only factor.
Is part of this competition a race to get the best and brightest minds in the industry?
It is. It is very much so. And, you know, all these companies hire, you know, all the PhDs they can and all the best electrical engineers and computer scientists, you know, the US educational institutions produce the best. Not the not the greatest number, necessarily, but the best and, but right now, I think that the stats are like 60% or so of the students pursuing PhDs in those disciplines are foreign born. So a lot of them tried to work here and use their educational degree to help get a job here and stay in America, but the Trump administration made that very difficult. And meanwhile, companies got stronger abroad. So some people say from Taiwan, for example, who would have wanted to stay here, you know, cycle back to Taiwan, same thing was true in mainland China, I think. So it is a race and consequently the semiconductor industry association and people like that have lobbied hard for immigration policies that make it easier for people to move from country to country and for educated people to stay here.
Yeah, I mean, because traditionally, we think of the US as having an advantage in getting the world's brightest minds, but it seems like we may be losing that advantage.
Yeah in my opinion, we're shooting ourselves in the foot because I think we should, you know, staple a green card to every PhD in electrical engineering, you know.
In a sense it shows that the United States doesn't have the talent that it once had. I mean, it's under-invested in R&D and it's undressed under-invested in STEM education. And interestingly, if you listen to TSMC's founder, he will say that the United States doesn't have the engineering talent to make it viable for TSMC to relocate these operations to the country. And he will point to Taiwan's engineers as a big asset for TSMC going forward.
So you can invest all the money, have a fab, but if you can't hire people, that's going to be a problem. I think that's the way things are shaping up now. When countries start declaring the importance of semiconductors for nationalistic reasons. There are two parts of this answer. The policy will be okay, whatever I need to do to support the semiconductor industry in my country, policies will be in that view. But the good thing is, the second part of this is that there's no one country who can do everything from start to finish. Okay, so you have to depend on multiple countries. So the policy makers will definitely start thinking, my gosh, this is a global supply chain. We need to collaborate more with like-minded countries who are part of the integrated supply chain, and we need to make sure not just only looking it from the nationalistic point of view, but also from a global point of view that we got to work together with multiple countries, because this supply chain is interdependent on many countries to make a chip.
Chips have become an irreplaceable part of our world. We need them for every call we make, every visit to the doctor, every show we watch, every car we build. They’re critical to economic growth, innovation, and defense.
The need to create them can lead to good things - investment in STEM education, alliances, fruitful competition between researchers, and technological breakthroughs that better our world.
But like any other essential resource, they also have the power to fuel divisiveness, trade disputes, nationalism and even armed conflict.
The world is learning just how much it depends on them. And that it can no longer tolerate the fragility revealed during the pandemic. We need a better system. But what type of system will we build?
For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes.
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Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Asher Ross, Jeremy Sherlick, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Rafaela Siewert is our assistant podcast producer. Sophie Yass is our summer intern.
Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Extra help for this episode was provided by Zoe Han and Anshu Siripurapu.
Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke.
For Why It Matters this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you soon!