Subscribe or upgrade your account to read:

Geopolitical supremacy will increasingly depend on computer chips

Technology sector

Geopolitical supremacy will increasingly depend on computer chips

A Taiwanese semiconductor company lies at the heart of the power struggle between the US and China

The TSMC stand at the 2020 World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China. The Taiwanese company is the world leader in silicon chip manufacture, by a long way © Fang Dongxu/VCG/Getty

If humanity’s priorities were measured in building costs, then they would rank as: reverence for God, the future of physics and the production of computer chips. 

The building complex surrounding the Grand Mosque of Mecca is reckoned to be the most expensive construction of modern times, although the cost of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France may exceed it upon completion.

But the third most costly building is almost certainly the giant semiconductor fabrication plant being built by TSMC in Taiwan for about $20bn. When operational next year, the facility will contain clean rooms the size of 22 football pitches in which silicon chips will be manufactured at dimensions that redefine the meaning of wafer-thin. At just 3 nanometres, TSMC’s wafers will be as thick as the length your fingernail grows in three seconds.

This vast capital expenditure highlights the near-insatiable demand for computer chips, the dominance of Taiwanese chipmakers and the sophistication of modern manufacturing. TSMC’s chips power everything from Apple’s latest iPhones to medical equipment to F-35 warplanes, accounting for about 55 per cent of global semiconductor sales.

But the manufacture of semiconductors is becoming a geopolitical imperative, too. As part of its squeeze on China’s tech industry, the US has pressured TSMC to stop supplying Huawei, previously one of its biggest customers. China, which spends more on importing computer chips than oil, is developing a semiconductor industry to reduce dependence on overseas suppliers. 

Sensing their own vulnerability, the US, Japan and the EU are also stepping up their efforts to develop indigenous semiconductor industries, as their carmakers and computer games companies wail about the lack of supply. Computer chips currently vie with vaccines as must-have resources for any nation state.

If military capability in previous centuries was built on breech-loading rifles, warships or atomic bombs, it may well depend in the 21st century on the smartest use of advanced chips. The centrality of TSMC to the global semiconductor industry is sometimes given as a reason why mainland China might yet invade Taiwan. But far bigger military and political considerations will determine Beijing’s course of action.

By any measure, TSMC is an extraordinary company which is reaping the benefits of out-investing its rivals. It has just announced that its capital spending will further increase to between $25bn and $28bn this year as it struggles to add capacity fast enough to match demand. During an earnings call last month, CC Wei, TSMC’s chief executive, said that surging sales of smartphones and high-performance computers and the adoption of 5G mobile technology were fuelling demand for the company’s leading-edge logic chips. “We believe that 5G is a multiyear megatrend that will enable a world where digital computation is increasingly ubiquitous,” he said.

Most other semiconductor companies have dropped out of the race to manufacture 3nm chips due to the stratospheric costs. It will now be hard for any rival to catch up with TSMC because of its vast capital spending, its technological expertise, its network of suppliers and its support from the Taiwanese government. Only Samsung of South Korea is visible in its rear-view mirror.

“What separates TSMC from other foundries is its appetite to take risks and its ability to execute. It is an incredible business model,” says Brett Simpson, a tech analyst at Arete, an independent research firm. “The market is heading for one dominant player and one subscale player that is hanging in there and executing very well.”

The bigger concern for TSMC is the geopolitical tension between the US and China. With two fabrication plants in China, one in the US state of Washington and another planned in Arizona, TSMC has been hedging its bets. But like many other companies in a fast-polarising world, it is being forced to choose.

Shelley Rigger, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina and author of Why Taiwan Matters, says that US pressure on China is only reinforcing Beijing’s determination to become self-sufficient in semiconductor manufacturing: “China has infinite money to throw at a problem like this and no scruples about doing what needs to be done.”

Taiwan has long feared that the world could divide into Chinese-dominated red supply chains and US-focused blue supply chains, jeopardising relations with either its biggest trading partner or its main strategic ally. The island’s room for manoeuvre is becoming as thin as TSMC’s wafers.

john.thornhill@ft.com

Letter in response to this column:

Trying to visualise the size of a factory is a fool’s game / From Michael Singer, Honorary Professor, The Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London, London WC2, UK

Copyright The Financial Times Limited . All rights reserved. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

Content not loading? Subscribers can also read Geopolitical supremacy will increasingly depend on computer chips on ft.com