US-China Tech War Heats Up Over Open-Source Chip Technology RISC-V

The US is investigating China's approach to RISC-V technology, a new flash point of conflict in sight

by Sededin Dedovic
US-China Tech War Heats Up Over Open-Source Chip Technology RISC-V
© Jeff Geerling / Youtube channel

In a new front in the US-China tech war, President Joe Biden's administration is facing pressure from some lawmakers to restrict American companies from working on freely available chip technology widely used in China. It's a move that could change the way the global tech industry collaborates across borders.

It is RISC-V, which is read as "risk five". Open source technology that competes with expensive proprietary technology from British semiconductor design and software company Arm Holdings. RISC-V can be used as a key ingredient for anything from smartphone chips to advanced artificial intelligence processors.

The United States Department of Commerce, as part of the current administration, is thoroughly investigating the potential risks arising from China's involvement in processor architecture, particularly focusing on RISC-V technology.

The initiative comes amid growing calls from lawmakers to scrutinize China's influence on the global tech scene. Through such efforts, a potential new focal point of conflict between the United States of America and China, two global powers that are already involved in a trade-technological war, is opening up.

RISC-V© Jeff Geerling / Youtube channel

RISC-V, whose "V" stands for the Roman numeral five, is an instruction set software (ISA) standard that guides processors to perform tasks. This architecture stands out for its lower complexity compared to more traditional architectures like x86, and at the same time it is completely open.

Unlike Arm's architecture, which is one of RISC-V's main competitors, this technology does not rely on paying expensive licenses, but is available as open source. Although RISC-V is not dominant in mainstream computing products, its broad applicability makes it attractive for many types of processors.

This has raised concerns among US lawmakers who fear China could use the technology to secure advanced computing power during a trade and technology conflict. The United States administration is now actively investigating China's approach to RISC-V technology, recognizing the potential threat it may pose.

Although RISC-V is a fully open standard, it is currently under "trust" in Switzerland to preserve its open standard nature. However, US lawmakers have called it an American tool and expressed concern over China's use of the technology.

Michael McCaul, chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, pointed out that the Chinese Communist Party is using RISC-V to avoid US dominance of the intellectual property necessary for chip design. This is just one example of US efforts to limit Chinese access to this technology.

This conflict is not new. Back in October, McCaul and other lawmakers called for a halt to China's approach to the RISC-V standard, prompting a swift response from RISC-V International. Kališta Redmond, CEO of RISC-V International, emphasized the importance of the unhindered development of open standards.

McCaul said he wants the Bureau of Industry and Security, the part of the Commerce Department that oversees export control regulations, to take the necessary steps. And they will continue with the adoption of the law if this is not achieved.

RISC-V© Jeff Geerling / Youtube channel

The office is constantly reviewing the technology landscape and threat environment, and continually evaluates how best to apply our export control policies to protect national security and preserve key technologies, a Commerce Department spokesman said in a statement.

"Communist China is developing an open-source chip architecture to avoid our sanctions and develop its chip industry," Rubio said in a statement to Reuters. "If we don't expand our export controls on this threat, China will one day overtake us as the global leader in chip design." "I fear that our export control laws are ill-equipped to meet the challenge of open source software - whether in advanced semiconductor designs like RISC-V or in the area of artificial intelligence - and a dramatic paradigm shift is needed," Warner said.

"RISC-V is an open standard that accepts contributions from all over the world. As a global standard, RISC-V is not under the control of any single company or country," said Redmond, emphasizing the global nature of this technology.

Open standards, such as Ethernet, HTTPS and USB, play a key role in the development of the Internet and technology. Restricting access to any of those standards could have serious consequences for both embargoed countries and the global community using open source projects.

However, in November 2023, a new group of 18 US lawmakers again expressed concern about China's approach to the RISC-V standard. In response to these concerns, the U.S. Commerce Department said it is in the process of reviewing potential risks and evaluating appropriate measures that could be taken under trade authorities to address.

The chip war between China and the US is likely to continue as long as the US fears military development or losing economic ground in competition with its rival.