Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology by Chris Miller is a valuable contribution when the world is still trying to understand the geopolitical relevance of the tech war between the US and China. The book has won the 2022 Financial Times business book of the year award.

Authored by an academic who teaches international history at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Chip War is the latest book published by the author as part of his research to decipher and dissect the relevance of critical shifts in international politics and economics. The book examines the geopolitical relevance of chips and how access to chips has influenced the changing dynamics of the balance of power in a globalised world.

The book comprises seven parts, delineating the origins and evolution of chip manufacturing and how it has shaped international politics. The book’s striking feature to me was the author’s compelling portrayal of the history of chips. The origins of chip manufacturing and its science provides a fascinating story and makes sense even to those who are relatively ignorant about the technological and engineering aspects. The narrative around chip evolution and its development over time, painted against the evolving geopolitical canvas involving key actors the US, erstwhile USSR, Japan, South Korea, and China, makes the book compelling. The arguments in the book reinforce the reality that the Internet of Things (IoT) is not limited to its usage as a communication technology.

Power imbalances

In today’s age, states are looking at IoT as a weapon that will enable the best in the business to establish control over the digital estate by connecting billions of devices and assuming geo-strategic advantage. Therefore, given the immense potential of the advanced versions of chips and the promise it holds, with massive spillover effects in military modernisation threatening to amplify the power imbalances.

There has been heated debate in the US over China’s emergence as a tech power. Some argue that the US strategy of choking chip supply to China to paralyse its tech march exposes China’s vulnerabilities.

For instance, the Biden administration’s Chips Act seeks to reassert US dominance. In the same measure, the US policymakers are keen to rejuvenate its tech prowess by ensuring that chip production is again restored to the US. But the intriguing question in this regard is will the US become self-sufficient by taking recourse to the policy of reshoring? To what extent will attracting Taiwan’s chip-making giant TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company) and Foxconn boost the US capacity? And how does the redrawing of the chip manufacturing maps alter the geopolitics of our times?

It is interesting to note that even in the past, geopolitical considerations concerning chips were a critical factor. The author, Chris Miller, highlights how the Japanese threatened US supremacy during the 1980s, prompting a rejuvenated sense of Japanese nationalism, provoking works like ‘A Japan that can say No.’

Interestingly, this Japanese narrative fuelled some Chinese intellectuals to develop a piece titled ‘A China that can say No.’ The American policymakers actively promoted the emergence of South Korea as a chip manufacturing hub to check Japanese ambitions.

The Taiwan card

Currently, we see a similar pattern with US policymakers seeking to contain China’s tech ambitions by playing the Taiwan card. In this regard, the author’s coverage of the Taiwan issue and its geopolitical relevance owing to its chip manufacturing capacity is very informative. The various choices that the critical stakeholders can exercise to resolve the Taiwan issue and the possible geopolitical ramifications are bound to keep readers engaged.

A section of US policymakers argues that the best way to contend with China in the technomic war is to focus on what the US does best: encourage innovation and attract the best talent worldwide. But unlike previous occasions, one is unsure to what extent China’s isolation in an already sophisticated tech value chain can be possible.

Moreover, given the state, capitalist-driven tech ambitions of China, will the American policymakers be prompted to take a leaf out of the Chinese book or adopt a mixed approach where the state can safeguard national interests and yet play by the rules of market capitalism?

In another section, the author highlights how the US could militarily modernise itself and left the world gasping with guided missiles during Operation Desert Storm. The inability to integrate the chips-related technology with its military equipment during the Vietnam war seriously handicapped US options. Further, the author contends that the current failure of Russia to secure an outright victory over Ukraine is due to its inability to enhance its military prowess by integrating the most advanced and sophisticated technology powered by advanced chips.

For Indian policymakers and those interested in the geopolitical implications of technology, the book is hugely informative. With economic nationalism on a high and ‘self-reliance’ being the critical mantra, how will India protect its national interests and highlight the ‘make in India’ to be technologically self-sufficient and emerge unscathed in geopolitical rivalries spurred by chips-driven technology?

(The reviewer is Faculty, Humanities and Social Sciences, IIM Indore)

Check out the book on Amazon here

Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology
Author: Chris Miller
Published: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Pages 464
Price: Rs 799