The Asian Century 14.

            The way it looks at the moment, the foreseeable future will be dominated by tiny things: deadly viruses and ultra-thin semi-conductors.  Controlling both holds the key to leadership (and possibly survival) in the Twenty-First Century.  Both come from Asia.  Of the two, computer chips may be the more pressing long-term concern.[1] 

            Inevitably, this begins as History.  The West pioneered industrialization, then moved up the ladder from making simple things to making more complicated and higher-value things.  From this they drew immense wealth.  Wealth converts into military power.  From the late Eighteenth Century onward, the West both shot ahead of the rest of the world and began to impose its rule on the rest of the world.[2] 

            Since the Second World War, many countries have wanted to follow the Western path.  For most of the imitators it meant beginning where the West had begun, with simple mass-produced goods that the West no longer cared to produce.  Textiles, then simple electronics, then motorbikes and automobiles.  They were filling global needs without competing head to head with the established economies. 

            Two countries—South Korea and Taiwan—went farther than making textiles, steel, and ships.  Taiwan’s strategy: invest heavily in research and development; build human capital through education and hold that capital in Taiwan; push rapid adaptation to changing markets in the West; encourage new businesses, rather than guard the established giants; and don’t put the hackles up on key Western manufacturers. 

            One of those start-ups was the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC).  The Taiwanese government chose Morris Chang, an American-educated Taiwanese, to begin creating a semi-conductor industry.  They didn’t set him to jumping too far by building an industry to use those chips in things like smartphones.  They set him to building the essential component of such devices.  He succeeded, but–true to the Taiwanese form—he didn’t rest on his laurels.  TSMC kept pushing up the ladder to chips until it became the leading producer of high-end semi-conductors.  What it did not do was to branch out into making the devices produced by powerful companies like Apple.  Both American and Chinese device manufacturers came to rely on abundant supplies of TSMC chips. 

            Now TSMC and Taiwan are becoming important “chips” in a different game.  The Trump Administration broke with previous American policy by taking seriously the profound Chinese-American rivalry.  Tariffs formed one part of its campaign, but so did a campaign to block the expansion outside China of the Huawei Company.  The American campaign against Huawei aimed, in part, to block the Chinese company’s access to TSMC chips.  The Trump Administration also encouraged TSMC to build a chip plant in the United States. 

            IF artificial intelligence and high-speed computing are going to be two corner stones of economic power and national prosperity, then high-end chips are an essential interest of both China and the United States.  Will the complicated Sino-American relationship on this issue and on so many others be resolved by diplomacy? 


[1] Ruchir Sharma, “It All Comes Down to Taiwan,” NYT, 15 December 2020. 

[2] David S. Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Innovation and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (1969).