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TSMC is now building an enormous new “foundry” in southern Taiwan at an estimated cost of $US20 billion to produce the next generation of 3 nanometre (nm) chips, which are predicted to be 70 percent faster in computing and more power-efficient than the current most advanced 5 nm chips. The smaller the components—a nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre—the more can be packed onto a chip. TSMC’s stranglehold is considered virtually unassailable. A Financial Times (FT) article entitled “Geopolitical supremacy will increasingly depend on computer chips” published in February commented: “Most other semiconductor companies have dropped out of the race to manufacture 3nm chips due to the stratospheric costs. It will now be hard for any rival to catch up with TSMC because of its vast capital spending, its technological expertise, its network of suppliers and its support from the Taiwanese government. Only Samsung of South Korea is visible in its rear-view mirror.” TSMC’s virtual monopoly of advanced chip production has obvious military implications. The FT article noted: “If military capability in previous centuries was built on breech-loading rifles, warships or atomic bombs, it may well depend in the 21st century on the smartest use of advanced chips.” Such chips are essential for everything from the artificial intelligence built into the latest generation of warplanes to missile guidance systems and computer modelling of trajectories. The Pentagon has long pressed from the establishment of comparable chip “foundries” in the US to ensure supplies of these vital components in the event of war. Similar military calculations are being made in other capitals as the US-led war drive against China intensifies the danger of conflict. The Trump administration’s decision to cut off supplies of chips to the Chinese technology giant Huawei, which included pressure on TSMC to do the same, undoubtedly triggered shockwaves in Beijing. China imports all but 15 percent of its chips, especially of the most advanced chips. It spends more on imported semiconductors than oil. US economic warfare against Huawei will only spur Beijing to spend even more to build domestic capacity. Restrictions have also been placed on one of China’s largest chip makers, the Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp, and more recently, by the Biden administration, on three Chinese companies associated with the production of supercomputers as well as four branches of China’s National Supercomputing Centre. Ironically, the ban on Huawei played a significant role in the current acute global shortage of chips because Huawei spent billions stockpiling before it came into effect. The strategic significance of chip manufacture was underscored yesterday when the Biden administration convened a virtual meeting of key companies over chip shortages and the need for domestic US chip production. Biden touted his $2 trillion infrastructure plan, as well as congressional moves to provide $50 billion in funding for chip production, as incentives to expand manufacture in the US. TSMC had a seat at the virtual table. It is already establishing a $12 billion chip foundry in Arizona and facilities in Japan, which is concerned about its own lack of domestic chip manufacture. However, the Arizona facility is being geared up to produce 5nm chips, which will already be dated when the new TSMC plant in southern Taiwan starts making 3nm chips in 2023.


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