A possible move by the US to restrict its companies from participating in RISC-V, an open-source chip design architecture that China is doubling down on to reduce dependence on foreign technologies, could further intensify the tech war between the two countries, according to analysts.
US lawmakers, including both Republican and Democratic Senators, are urging the Biden administration to take action on RISC-V on national security grounds, according to a Reuters report at the weekend, marking the first time that US politicians have looked at restricting the tech standard.
RISC-V is an open-standard instruction set architecture (ISA) which gives chip developers the ability to configure and customise their designs. It has become a new hope for China to reduce its dependence on foreign intellectual property (IP) suppliers amid an escalating tech war with the US.
While Beijing and industry associations, including the China RISC-V Alliance, have not publicly responded, Chinese analysts, experts and netizens have been quick to comment.
Zhang Guobin, founder of Chinese semiconductor industry website eetrend.com said in a statement on WeChat on Sunday that the move might create “a new battlefield in the US-China chip war”, building on Washington’s existing restrictions on the mainland’s access to advanced chips and tools.
“The RISC-V International has moved its headquarters from the US to Switzerland, but it has been unexpectedly targeted by American politicians,” Zhang wrote, referring to the non-profit, large member foundation aimed at promoting the open source chip architecture.
“If sanctions are actually implemented, the answer is not yet clear in terms of which side [China or the US] will develop better from this point,” posted one user with the handle of “Qintian” on electronics engineering forum EEWorld.
While RISC-V originated in 2010 at the University of California, China has nevertheless embraced the standard as a possible solution to bypass US technology restrictions, coupled with commercial considerations such as cost reduction and diversification from the ecosystem of British semiconductor design giant Arm.
Currently, Arm cannot sell certain high-end IPs to Chinese clients due to US restrictions. Meanwhile, US electronic design automation company Synopsys can only provide a reduced-function version of its software to Chinese companies such as Huawei Technologies, according to a Synopsys engineer who spoke to the Post in June on the sidelines of a RISC-V event in Beijing.
Currently, the Intel-developed X86 is the dominant chip design architecture for desktop and laptop computers, while the design architecture behind most smartphone chips in the world is controlled by SoftBank Group Corp-owned Arm.
Of the 21 premier members of RISC-V International, nearly half are Chinese, including Alibaba Cloud, Huawei, ZTE and Tencent Holdings, according to the agency’s website.
Meanwhile, China has set up a domestic RISC-V alliance. Nine Chinese chip companies – including Alibaba Group Holding’s chip unit T-Head and Shanghai-listed VeriSilicon Holdings – agreed in August to form an alliance that includes a condition that members not sue each other over patent infringement. Alibaba owns the Post.
In theory, anyone can use RISC-V open-standard ISA to design their own CPU IPs. In reality, many chip design firms have chosen to buy commercial IP cores from companies such as SiFive, Andes Technology, and Nuclei to shorten the design time and reduce heavy costs.
However, analysts said any move by the US to target RISC-V with restrictions would risk bifurcating the open-standard ISA used increasingly to design semiconductor across various sectors, from autos to Internet-of-Things (IoT) applications.
“You can stop US firms in the RISC-V International from working with Chinese companies, but the collaboration that has been built on RISC-V’s open-standard nature is out there, one can also turn to the internet for the instruction set,” said Edward Wilford, senior principal analyst of IoT hardware at research company Omdia.
Chinese firms already represent 60 to 80 per cent of start-ups using RISC-V, according to Wilford. In 2022, global shipments of RISC-V architecture chips exceeded 10 billion units, with half of them coming from China, according to data from RISC-V International.