The US-China tech war has taken a new turn as some US lawmakers are pushing for restrictions on American companies working on RISC-V, a free and open-source chip technology that is widely used in China. RISC-V, which competes with the costly proprietary technology of Arm Holdings, can be used for various applications, from smartphones to artificial intelligence. However, some US lawmakers are concerned that China is exploiting the open collaboration culture of American companies to advance its own semiconductor industry and military modernization. They are urging the Biden administration to take action and require export licenses for any US person or company engaging with Chinese entities on RISC-V technology. This could disrupt the global tech industry and affect the innovation and competitiveness of both countries.
RISC-V, pronounced as “risk five”, is an open-source alternative to the instruction set architecture (ISA) of Arm Holdings, a British company that designs and licenses chip technology. An ISA is a set of rules that defines how a processor communicates with software and hardware. RISC-V was developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2010, and is now maintained by the non-profit RISC-V International organization, which has over 1,000 members from academia, industry, and government. Unlike Arm, which charges fees for using its ISA and imposes restrictions on modifications, RISC-V is free to use and allows anyone to customize it for their specific needs.
RISC-V has gained popularity in recent years as a low-cost and flexible alternative to Arm, especially in China, where the government has been investing heavily in developing its domestic semiconductor industry amid the US-China tech war. China is one of the largest markets for chips, but it relies heavily on imports from foreign suppliers, such as the US, Taiwan, and South Korea. The US has imposed export restrictions on some Chinese chip companies, such as Huawei and SMIC, citing national security concerns. This has prompted China to seek more self-reliance and innovation in chip technology.
One of the ways that China has been pursuing this goal is by adopting RISC-V as a key component of its chip development strategy. According to a report by Reuters1, China has more than 200 companies and organizations working on RISC-V projects, ranging from basic research to commercial products. Some of these include Alibaba Group1, Huawei1, Baidu1, Xiaomi1, Loongson1, Canaan Creative1, Bitmain1, and Allwinner Technology1. China also has several academic institutions and research centers that are involved in RISC-V research and education, such as Tsinghua University1, Peking University1, Shanghai Jiao Tong University1, Chinese Academy of Sciences1, and National Supercomputing Center in Jinan1.
RISC-V has enabled China to develop chips that are tailored to its specific needs and applications, such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence, internet of things, blockchain, edge computing, and 5G. For example, Alibaba Group has developed its own RISC-V processor called Xuantie-9101, which it claims is the most powerful RISC-V processor in the world. Huawei has also developed its own RISC-V processor called Kunpeng-9201, which it uses for its cloud servers. Baidu has also created its own RISC-V processor called Kunlun-21, which it uses for its artificial intelligence platform.
However, not everyone is happy with China’s use of RISC-V technology. Some US lawmakers have expressed concerns that China is abusing RISC-V to circumvent US export control laws and gain access to advanced chip technology that could be used for military purposes. They have urged the Biden administration to take action and require export licenses for any US person or company engaging with Chinese entities on RISC-V technology. They have also suggested that the US should work with its allies to create a “trusted network” of RISC-V partners that would exclude China.
Such calls to regulate RISC-V have sparked debate and controversy in the global tech community, as they could undermine the core principles of openness and collaboration that underpin RISC-V’s development and innovation. Many experts and industry leaders have argued that restricting RISC-V would be counterproductive and harmful for both the US and China, as well as the rest of the world. They have pointed out that RISC-V is not a single product or company, but a diverse and dynamic ecosystem that involves thousands of stakeholders from different countries and sectors. They have also emphasized that RISC-V is not a threat to US national security, but an opportunity for cooperation and mutual benefit.
The future of RISC-V remains uncertain amid the escalating US-China tech war. However, one thing is clear: RISC-V is more than just a chip technology; it is a new battleground for global tech leadership and competition.