Chris Miller’s “Chip War” is essential reading for anyone wondering why semiconductors have become a huge issue in geopolitics. The author explains the importance of chips beyond everyday life – that is, their importance for the military and the industrial power base of any nation that can make or use them. He initially focuses on the US and Soviet Russia and then brings Asia into view, reflecting the development of the industry over the decades. Sadly, he neglects Europe’s integral place in this decades-long story.
This omission aside, Miller’s historical overview of the development of microchips is the strongest part of the book. Invented as a replacement for vacuum tubes in weapons, semiconductors were ideal for all sorts of other things. Today only a small part of US manufacturers’ revenues comes from government contracts, but in the early days they relied on demand from the US government, usually in the form of NASA or the Pentagon.
Describing the different industrial policies pursued by the US, Japan, Taiwan and China, Miller shows how hard it is to make chip making commercially viable. All leading chip-making countries relied on government support, directly through subsidies and market controls or indirectly through public procurement. Although armed forces generally don’t use top-of-the line chips, the author explains why innovation still remains a military priority.
Miller’s description of the current conflict between China and the US is less developed. The author sees a second Cold War emerging, but does not do enough to justify why the first one between Soviet Russia and the US is a useful comparison. This part of the book is full of interesting examples, but they lack a red thread. But in highlighting the geopolitics behind successive chip wars, he counters the idea that the division of work in modern chip-making was shaped purely by market forces.
Reviewed by Antonia Hmaidi