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RISC-V and the U.S.-China Tech War: Balancing Innovation and Security

ChinaRISC-V and the U.S.-China Tech War: Balancing Innovation and Security

In the ongoing U.S.-China technology rivalry, President Joe Biden’s administration is under mounting pressure from certain lawmakers to impose restrictions on American companies’ involvement with RISC-V, an open-source chip technology that has gained widespread use in China. This potential move could disrupt the collaborative dynamics of the global technology industry and raise questions about national security.

RISC-V, pronounced “risk five,” represents an open-source alternative to the costly proprietary technology offered by Arm Holdings, a British semiconductor and software design company. Its versatile applications range from smartphone chips to advanced processors for artificial intelligence. Notably, RISC-V is not just a chip technology; it symbolizes a cultural shift towards open collaboration in technology development.

Several lawmakers, including two Republican House of Representatives committee chairmen, Senator Marco Rubio (R) and Senator Mark Warner (D), are calling upon the Biden administration to take action concerning RISC-V, citing national security concerns. Their primary worry centers on Beijing exploiting the open collaboration culture among American firms to bolster its semiconductor industry, potentially undermining the U.S. leadership in the chip sector and aiding China’s military modernization. This marks the first major attempt to restrict U.S. companies from contributing to RISC-V development.

Representative Mike Gallagher, who chairs the House select committee on China, emphasized the need for the Commerce Department to mandate export licenses for any American entity engaging with Chinese counterparts on RISC-V technology. These calls for regulation are the latest chapter in the U.S.-China battle over chip technology, which intensified last year with the Biden administration’s sweeping export restrictions, set to receive updates soon.

Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized U.S. support for what he views as a Chinese tech transfer strategy to evade U.S. export control laws. He urged action from the Bureau of Industry and Security, a branch of the Commerce Department overseeing export-control regulations, and threatened legislative measures if necessary.

The Commerce Department responded, stating, “Communist China is developing open-source chip architecture to dodge our sanctions and grow its chip industry,” noting that without broader export controls, China could surpass the U.S. in chip design.

Senator Rubio shared this concern, stating that the U.S. needs to broaden its export controls to counter the threat posed by open-source software like RISC-V, which he believes could propel China to global leadership in chip design.

RISC-V is overseen by a Swiss-based nonprofit foundation that coordinates collaborative efforts among for-profit companies to develop the technology. Its origins trace back to the University of California, Berkeley, with early support from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). RISC-V’s creators liken its development model to that of Ethernet, USB, and the internet, emphasizing its role in accelerating innovation and reducing costs.

China’s Huawei Technologies has embraced RISC-V as a cornerstone of its domestic chip development efforts. Simultaneously, the United States and its allies, such as Qualcomm, have also entered the RISC-V arena, collaborating with European automotive firms to develop RISC-V chips. Alphabet’s Google has announced plans to adapt its Android mobile operating system for RISC-V chips.

Qualcomm declined to comment, but its executives have previously expressed optimism that RISC-V will drive innovation and reshape the tech industry. Google did not respond to requests for comment.

If the Biden administration does heed the calls to regulate U.S. companies’ involvement in the Swiss-based RISC-V foundation as suggested by lawmakers, it could complicate collaborative efforts between American and Chinese firms on open technical standards. Additionally, it might pose hurdles to China’s pursuit of chip self-sufficiency and impede U.S. and European initiatives to create more affordable and versatile chips.

Jack Kang, Vice President of Business Development at SiFive, a startup based in Santa Clara, California, that employs RISC-V, views potential U.S. government restrictions as a “tremendous tragedy.” He likened it to banning work on the internet and argued that such a move would be detrimental to technology leadership, innovation, and the jobs being generated.

Regulating the open exchange of technologies is less common than regulating physical products, but it remains feasible. Export-control attorney Kevin Wolf, who served in the Commerce Department under former President Barack Obama, suggested that existing rules on chip exports could provide a legal framework for such regulation.

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