Washington is stuck in the unipolar mindset of preserving technological monopoly through sanctions rather than fair competition
Washington has apparently been under the impression that by depriving its adversaries of access to high-end microchips, be it China or Russia, it can enforce an all-inclusive package of containment that cripples their military, technological and therefore economic development. Using its monopoly over fundamental chipmaking patents and equipment, the US has unilaterally blacklisted Chinese companies, as well as Russia in its entirety, and forced third-party countries to do the same.
This has become a core component of US President Joe Biden’s doctrine, which envisions perpetuating American hegemony through sustaining its technological monopoly. This has become the onus of the new Cold War, which is more about chips and less about nuclear weapons, as the US seeks to control the technologies of the future. However, as time goes by, no matter how many restrictions Washington imposes on adversarial countries, it is becoming more and more clear that the policy isn’t working. As an article in The Hill narrates:
“China is openly seeking to evade US export rules on semiconductors by investing in RISC-V [an open-source chip design architecture] to develop homegrown chips, undercutting years of bipartisan and international work in this space.”
Similarly, “Russian companies that include Yadro and Elbrus are developing capable RISC-V cores,” despite repeated claims that the US could cut the country off from chip development entirely as punishment for its military intervention in Ukraine. These breakthroughs only scratch the surface, as Beijing continues to invest billions in semiconductors and move towards next-generation technology. Just recently, the news emerged that Huawei is making surveillance camera chips again.
Why might such policies be failing in their goals? First of all, the American attitude to sanctions was crafted in the era of unipolarity, not multipolarity. For US foreign policy, sanctions have become a “quick fix,” a lazy catch-all solution to a problem which requires little thinking or strategy. In the unipolar era during the 1990s and 2000s, when US dominance was comprehensive, Washington politicians learned that they could strangle small countries into poverty and ruin them through crippling sanctions due to massive power disparity. They could therefore get their own way, precisely because it was easy to isolate such states financially and technologically. It is of little surprise that US sanctions surged during this era, because the policy is a product of “unipolarity;” the belief that the US single-handedly constitutes “the law” and everyone else must follow.
However, as the world has changed, the US has incorporated unipolar strategies into a multipolar world against larger opponents, still believing it has the leverage it once had. With a more disparate distribution of power, it is subsequently harder for the US to enforce and police sanctions cooperation outside of the countries it exclusively dominates, even against smaller targets. The US once believed crippling sanctions would force North Korea into nuclear disarmament, but it never did. It is now all round harder to isolate adversarial countries, which have more options before them than they previously did. Hence, Russia is still able to obtain semiconductors through various means even though it was claimed that it would be crippled and would have “run out of missiles” long ago.
It is precisely this delusion which leads the US to pursue a strategy premised on attempting to cripple its enemies through expanding technological embargos as a substitute for serious competition. This is also derived from the same complacency of unipolarity, the fundamental assumption that American adversaries are incapable of innovating and therefore, if technological decoupling accelerates, the US will preserve its advantages and stay ahead and those it opposes will fall behind. In other words, it is assumed no other state can succeed in inventing the semiconductor and microchip on their own terms. That would be like saying that, just because the US invented the nuclear bomb, other states couldn’t possibly do it.
Yet, given that the semiconductor has now been elevated to the status of the ultimate asset of this geopolitical struggle, and a centrepiece of national security, it is naive to think that China in particular, with all its money, resources, and expertise, is going to fail. This is more ironic given that Beijing is routinely accused of stealing American technology anyway, which calls into question the efficacy of such bans in the first place. Rather than preserving its own monopoly, what the US has done has broken the global semiconductor supply chain by overtly weaponizing it. This has forced other states to pursue survival and self-reliance strategies, which will damage the aforementioned American technological monopoly in the long run. In other words, the US is trying to swim against a current, to hold back multipolarity, and turn back the clock to a world where things were more advantageous for it – and that’s impossible.