Electronic Design Automation

An overview of the Chip 4 Alliance and its ramifications

21 December 2022
Inside a cleanroom at a SK Hynix fab. If the Chip 4 Alliance is official, four countries—U.S., Korea, Japan and Taiwan—will focus on protecting technology member nation technology and diversify away from China. Source: SK Hynix

In the face of repeated lockdowns in China, and now a deteriorating geopolitical situation throughout 2022, industrialized nations are now taking sides in a trade war focused on semiconductor production and the broader supply chain for technology products. To support domestic U.S. production of semiconductors and packaging, the U.S. passed the Chips and Science Act in August with the goal of encouraging new investment in domestic semiconductor manufacturing, R&D, and supply chain development.

Now the U.S. focus has expanded beyond domestic production to include coordinated production and policy efforts among the world’s largest semiconductor producing nations. As far back as late 2021, the U.S. proposed formation of the Chip 4 Alliance, a strategic alliance that includes South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.

After the passage of the Chips and Science Act, cooperation under the Chip 4 Alliance became official. The alliance has gotten off to a slow start in terms of coordinating export policy and production efforts, and some are wondering whether the group will be more than a formality. Will this alliance produce substantive changes in the semiconductor supply chain? We’ll explore these themes in this article.

Meet the Chip 4 Alliance

The Chip 4 Alliance includes four of the world’s top producers of semiconductors: the U.S., Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. Most readers will know that China is also a top producer of semiconductors on a contract basis for foreign companies, but the Chip 4 Alliance is clearly an anti-China entity. Overall, the intention of the alliance is to restructure the global supply chain such that it is less reliant on China, with particular focus on the following goals:

  • Geographically diversify manufacturing capacity away from China.
  • Protect intellectual property of companies from member nations.
  • Coordinate uniform export controls with regard to China.
  • Encourage favorable distribution terms among friendly nations.

Since companies are heavily reliant on subsidized skilled labor from China for manufacturing capabilities, there has been some resistance among semiconductor manufacturers to move capacity away from China. This is despite complaints from companies in the past focusing on everything from unfair trade practices, to forced exposure of IP to joint venture partners, and many instances of outright IP theft by Chinese companies.

COVID changed all of this, particularly China’s draconian COVID response measures, and underscored the need for sustainability over cheap labor. China’s COVID policies have directly impacted the supply chain by shutting down production in some of the largest Chinese factory regions. Couple this with China’s silent alignment with Russia over the Ukraine conflict, and the rest of the world has reached consensus on the need to move their production capacity closer to home. The Chip 4 Alliance was intended to spearhead this effort specifically within the semiconductor industry.

Slow response from member nations

Initially, member nations were slow to respond to the invitation to cooperate in the alliance. Ostensibly, top political leadership in member countries agrees with the goals of the alliance and are willing to participate. The problem is pressure from private companies operating in China and the amount of time required to implement reshoring initiatives. Progress has been hampered so greatly that the initial preparatory meeting of Chip 4 members was delayed for nearly a year, according to Eurasia Times.

U.S. going alone with export controls

Due to the difficulty in developing a coordinated policy response that does not further destabilize the recovering semiconductor supply chain, the U.S. has already decided to go alone in implementing some of the harshest export restrictions to date. The most recent export control updates block access to the most advanced logic devices, consulting services from U.S. persons, and manufacturing equipment that could be used in Chinese defense systems. In particular, the restrictions:

  • Bar “U.S. persons, including U.S. citizens and permanent residents, from supporting the ‘development or production’ of advanced chips at Chinese factories without a license.”
  • Limit export of manufacturing equipment that can support production in the most advanced technology nodes.
  • Limit export of the most advanced logic chips, IP and EDA to China should these products or IP support semiconductor production in the most advanced technology nodes.

Export restrictions to foreign governments, named companies, and named individuals are not new; they have always been an important part of national security policy. What makes the current set of export restrictions notable is how they extend beyond the traditional purview of U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and dual-use products as defined in U.S. Export Administration Regulations (EAR). This is perhaps the first time that the U.S. has implemented export controls against a foreign nation that have extended to individual people and provision of services by individuals.

What’s next?

Despite the slow cooperation on the international front, the U.S. is moving full steam ahead with its reshoring initiatives, which are largely being spearheaded by industry. The most recent headline-grabbing announcement came from TSMC, which announced its intention to triple its investment in U.S. fabrication capacity.

Attendees at the highly publicized event included President Biden and Apple CEO Tim Cook. Regardless of what the other Chip 4 Alliance members decide to do, the U.S. appears resolute in its intentions to continue moving advanced manufacturing capacity away from China.

To contact the author of this article, email GlobalSpecEditors@globalspec.com

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