America cannot afford to ignore China’s semiconductor ambitions. It cannot easily tame them, either
The trade disputes President Donald Trump relishes have an old-fashioned feel. Tariffs are the principal weapons. Old-economy markets, from cars to steel, are the main battlefields. Farmers and factories preoccupy the president. And his personal chemistry with other powerful men can make or break deals. Hence the focus on the meeting between Mr Trump and Xi Jinping at this week’s G20 summit, which takes place in Buenos Aires after The Economist has gone to press.
Yet the trade conflict that matters most between America and China is a 21st-century fight over technology. It covers everything from artificial intelligence (AI) to network equipment. The fundamental battleground is in semiconductors. The chip industry is where America’s industrial leadership and China’s superpower ambitions clash most directly. And whatever Messrs Trump and Xi say at the G20, this conflict will outlast them both.
That is because computer chips are the foundations of the digital economy and national security. Cars have become computers on wheels. Banks are computers that move money. Armies fight with silicon as well as steel. Firms from America and its allies, such as South Korea, dominate the most advanced areas of the industry. China, by contrast, remains reliant on the outside world for supplies of high-end chips. It spends more on semiconductor imports than it does on oil. The list of the top 15 semiconductor firms by sales does not contain a single Chinese name.