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US-China tech war: top Chinese scientist envisions forked RISC-V chip design standard to cushion decoupling impact

·4 min read

A top Chinese computer scientist said China is better positioned than Russia to cope with possible sanctions on chip design architecture from Western countries, adding that the country could develop a different ecosystem based on the RISC-V architecture and expand it among members of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Bao Yungang, a computing technology expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the secretary general of the China RISC-V Alliance, made the comments on the Chinese question-and-answer platform Zhihu in response to inquiries about whether China would face "supply disruptions" in the event of technological decoupling from the US.

Bao said China could fare much better than Russia under extreme scenarios involving sanctions and war because of its capabilities in central processing unit (CPU) research, sizeable talent base and large market.

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"In extreme cases, RISC-V related standard specifications can be bifurcated into RISC-X, and China is fully capable of advancing the evolution of the RISC-X standard independently and building an ecosystem together with Belt and Road countries," Bao said.

Chinese Academy of Sciences expert Bao Yungang. Photo: Handout alt=Chinese Academy of Sciences expert Bao Yungang. Photo: Handout>

"China's RISC-X products may not be able to enter the United States and other Western countries - just like Huawei products today, but this doesn't affect the sales and application of these products in Belt and Road countries," he added. "RISC-X can still be maintained as open source so that developing countries, with 6.6 billion people, can develop an [independent] ecosystem."

Bao did not respond to requests for comment.

As US sanctions on China's semiconductor industry have increased over the past couple years, the open source RISC-V chip architecture has been held up as a possible alternative to Intel's proprietary x86 architecture and the architecture from UK-based Arm, which is used by nearly all mobile chip designers, including Qualcomm and Apple. Since the RISC-V source code is publicly available online, it is not subject to export controls and it has no licensing fees.

The reduced instruction set computer (RISC) principles were first developed at University of California, Berkeley by professor David Patterson in 1980 and were made open source in the technology's fifth generation in 2015 as RISC-V. Standards are now maintained and published by the Switzerland-based non-profit organisation RISC-V International.

Of the organisation's 20 "premier members", half are Chinese, including Huawei Technologies Co - which is currently sanctioned by the US - and Alibaba Cloud, a subsidiary of Alibaba Group Holding, owner of the South China Morning Post.

At the same time, there are growing concerns in China that they may not be able to fully rely on open source technologies that originate in or are maintained by Western businesses, even though such code is not typically subject to sanctions.

While China has been trying to reduce reliance on foreign chip-making technologies, the country still lags behind its global peers in both chip design and manufacturing.

In particular, China's weakness in electronic design automation (EDA) software could leave the country vulnerable to sanctions even amid greater RISC-V adoption, according to industrial professionals. The US maintains a considerable lead in EDA software, which is critical for chip design, and manufacturing technologies.

"You need other things to make a device - wafers, photoresist, gases, etc," said Woz Ahmed, managing director of Chilli Ventures and former chief strategy officer at UK-based graphics processing giant Imagination Technologies. "That's not all in place yet, or not in sufficient scale and quality within China's domestic supply chain."

Huawei's chip design unit HiSilicon illustrates this challenge. It still has access to Arm's V8 architecture, but it cannot find foundries willing to manufacture its Arm-based chips. US sanctions ban companies like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), the world's largest contract chip maker, and Shanghai-based Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC) from making such chips for Huawei with US-origin technologies.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.