What’s next for the chip industry

The Netherlands and Japan have reportedly agreed to codify some of the US export control rules in their own countries. But the devil is in the fine print. “There are certainly voices supporting the Americans on this,” says Lee, who’s based in Germany. “But there’re also pretty strong voices arguing that to simply follow the Americans and lockstep on this would be bad for European interests.” Peter Wennink, CEO of Dutch lithography equipment company ASML, has said that his company “sacrificed” for the export controls while American companies benefited.

Fissures between countries may grow bigger as time goes on. “The history of these tech restriction coalitions shows that they are complex to manage over time and they require active management to keep them functional,” Miller says.

Taiwan is in an especially awkward position. Because of their geographical proximity and historical relationship, its economy is heavily entangled with that of China. Many Taiwanese chip companies, like TSMC, sell to Chinese companies and build factories there. In October, the US granted TSMC a one-year exemption from the export restrictions, but the exemption may not be renewed when it expires in 2023. There’s also the possibility that a military conflict between Beijing and Taipei would derail all chip manufacturing activities, but most experts don’t see that happening in the near term. 

“So Taiwanese companies must be hedging against the uncertainties,” Hsu says. This doesn’t mean they will pull out from all their operations in China, but they may consider investing more in overseas facilities, like the two chip fabs TSMC plans to build in Arizona. 

As Taiwan’s chip industry drifts closer towards the US and an alliance solidifies around the American export-control regime, the once globalized semiconductor industry comes one step closer to being separated by ideological lines. “Effectively, we will be entering the world of two chips,” Hsu says, with the US and its allies representing one of those worlds and the other comprising China and the various countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Eurasia, and Africa where China is pushing for its technologies to be adopted. Countries that have traditionally relied on China’s financial aid and trade deals with that country will more likely accept the Chinese standards when building their digital infrastructure, Hsu says.

Though it would unfold very slowly, Hsu says this decoupling is beginning to seem inevitable. Governments will need to start making contingency plans for when it happens, he says: “The plan B should be—what’s our China strategy?”

This story is a part of MIT Technology Review’s What’s Next series, where we look across industries, trends, and technologies to give you a first look at the future.