RISC-V Tech: US-China Policy Impact on Semiconductors

07-11-2023 | By Robin Mitchell

In a significant development within the semiconductor sector, US policymakers are deliberating on imposing limitations on China's engagement with the innovative RISC-V technology, a key player in the global open-source hardware movement. This is a stance that raises questions given RISC-V's status as an open standard with a global contributor base. What were the precise arguments made by US officials, and what are the potential implications of such a policy on China's semiconductor ambitions?

US lawmakers looking to restrict Chinese RISC-V access

RISC-V, the pioneering open-source instruction set architecture (ISA), is spearheading a revolution in the semiconductor industry and, despite still being in its infancy, is on the brink of transforming the landscape of microcontrollers and microprocessors. Unlike x86 and ARM, which currently dominate the computing sector, RISC-V's architecture is unique in that it operates on an open ISA, meaning that developers can use the instruction set without paying license fees or royalties. This is in stark contrast to proprietary ISAs like x86 and ARM, which can impose significant costs for their use and restrict modifications.  

That doesn’t mean that the processor design itself is free, as the architect of the processor could either sell their design as an IP core or manufacture the devices themselves. But what it does mean is that anyone who wants to can design their own RISC-V CPU and sell their design, thereby significantly lowering the barriers to entry for innovators and startups keen on contributing to the rapidly expanding RISC-V ecosystem. 

And yet, despite RISC-V being an open standard, lawmakers in the US have been recently pushing the Biden administration to introduce restrictions on RISC-V IP that would effectively bar access to Chinese customers to technologies developed in the US, including those developed by the famous RISC-V company SiFive. By restricting access to such technology, lawmakers' goal is to impede the swift growth of China's processor market, which is increasingly leveraging RISC-V's open-source flexibility, especially when considering that  China's strides in RISC-V technology are noteworthy, having already developed a suite of solutions within this architecture. This includes the capability to fabricate advanced sub-7nm semiconductor devices, showcasing their technical prowess and the versatility of RISC-V in supporting cutting-edge manufacturing processes. 

Jack Kang, vice president of business development at SiFive, a Santa Clara, California-based startup using RISC-V, said potential U.S. government restrictions on American companies regarding RISC-V would be a 'tremendous tragedy.' 'It would be like banning us from working on the internet,' Kang said. 'It would be a huge mistake in terms of technology, leadership, innovation and companies and jobs that are being created. 

The evolution of RISC-V is not just a testament to technological advancement but also to the collaborative spirit of the global tech community. In a recent article from Electropages, the pioneering efforts in RISC-V technology are highlighted, highlighting how RISC-V's open-source ISA is at the forefront of next-generation processor innovation, a hot topic in tech circles. The article delves into the various facets of RISC-V development, from its inception to its current state, and the potential it holds for the future of computing. This is particularly relevant as the technology stands at the crossroads of geopolitical interests and the inherent philosophy of open-source collaboration. For a deeper understanding, you can explore the topic further in the article "What is RISC-V?"

Such restrictions could also prevent China from being involved with future RISC-V designs, potentially redirecting the future course of RISC-V technology, an essential element in the worldwide computing arena. Furthermore, these restrictions would also force China to develop its technology after the fact, thus eliminating any potential lead that China could have over Western counterparts. 

Assessing the Strategic Merits of the Policy Approach

For anyone who follows politics, court cases, and government comities, it should come as no surprise that those making new laws rarely have any degree of technical capability or understanding of technology in general (the UK Online Safety Bill is an excellent example of this). In the case of US lawmakers wanting to restrict Chinese access to RISC-V technologies, this reveals a concerning gap in understanding the foundational principles of open-source technology.

As the very foundation of RISC-V is based on open standards, trying to incorporate restrictions goes against the fundamentals of RISC-V. By restricting Chinese customer’s access to RISC-V, the economic momentum essential for RISC-V to solidify its position as a dominant force in the tech industry is at risk, thus reducing the adoption rate for RISC-V. 

This restriction hurts not just Chinese consumers but also those in the West who are looking to move towards open standards. Furthermore, by restricting Chinese access to key RISC-V IP, it is possible that potential Chinese contributions to RISC-V are being thwarted, thus hurting the RISC-V community in the long run.

But if looking at this purely from a political point of view, if the past few years of strict semiconductor restrictions against China have demonstrated anything, it's evident that such restrictive measures frequently have unintended consequences, particularly in the high-stakes world of semiconductor innovation. Starving China of all the latest technology has forced it to become independent, leading to the emergence of its indigenous semiconductor industry, defying all the odds when it comes to the production of 7nm devices and even rapidly developing RISC-V technologies, which the West has actually benefited from. 

Could these restrictions hurt Chinese semiconductor goals?

A prevalent question is whether these restrictions will undermine Chinese technological progress. However, the strategy of limiting access to RISC-V may be counterintuitive. It turns out that, according to some Chinese sources, restricting RISC-V IP to Chinese consumers might unintentionally place Western IP developers at a disadvantage in the competitive RISC-V marketplace, as many of the IP solutions developed in the West are rarely used by China. 

Furthermore, as China already has a strong RISC-V market, it wouldn’t take too much effort on China’s side to develop its own range of IP for use in RISC-V devices. Thus, IP restrictions would actually reduce the market opportunities for Western developers while affording China ample opportunity to advance its proprietary RISC-V IP portfolio (keep in mind that China could still export its IP to the US, undercutting US developers).

While US lawmakers have expressed their intention to limit RISC-V development from China's perspective, it raises questions about the broader strategic objectives behind such decisions. The two largest processor technologies, x86 and ARM, are controlled by Western interests, and ensuring that these processor technologies remain dominant gives the West an edge. If RISC-V gains a larger market share, there could be a shift in the balance of technological influence, which might enable countries like China to have a more significant role in shaping the future of processor design. 


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.