America needs a proactive industrial policy to win the fourth industrial revolution.
The CHIPS are Down
Biden’s dreams of American semiconductor dominance are futile.
President Biden recently signed the “CHIPS and Science Act” into effect. This legislation, which is introduced to counter the rise of China as the world’s powerhouse supplier of advanced technology, provides tens of billions of dollars in new funding to boost research and manufacturing of semiconductors. According to Eddie Bernice Johnson, the chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, the CHIPS Act will revitalize science and innovation in the United States. President Biden echoed Johnson’s sentiments, insisting that the bill will ensure that “the world’s leading innovation happens in America.”
However, the bill overlooked one rather important ingredient: sourcing the rare earth elements (REE) used in, and crucial to, the manufacturing of semiconductors. China has the upper hand in this domain and is well ahead of its rivals in controlling the supply of these materials. Without these key ingredients, the U.S. will struggle to compete with its number one rival. The CHIPS Act, though a step in the right direction toward rebuilding American manufacturing, is nowhere near enough to challenge China seriously.
A number of different metals are used to make semiconductor chips. They include copper, which helps with electrical conductivity, as well as aluminum, tungsten, antinomy, and gold. With some 200 million metric tons, Chile has by far the world’s largest copper reserves. For years, China has been busy mining copper resources in the South American nation. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has spent billions acquiring copper mines in countries like Peru and Congo, as well as Chile. China is Chile’s biggest importer of copper.
Ten thousand miles away, in Zambia, the Chinese have established a major resource extraction hub. At the crossroads of Central, Southern and East Africa, Zambia is home to the Kansanshi open-pit mine, one of the largest copper mines on the African continent. Zambia has seen massive investments from Beijing-backed businesses. Meanwhile, in the aforementioned Congo, the largest copper producer in Africa, China recently invested $1.8 billion in the development of a copper-cobalt project.
Aluminum is crucial to the process of fabricating semiconductor chips. While the U.S. is the ninth largest producer of the metal, China leads the field by an order of magnitude. In 2019, China produced 36 million tons of aluminum; in second place, India produced only 3.7 million tons.
Tungsten is one of the world’s toughest materials and has become one of the hardest to source. According to analysts at Investing News, China is the world’s largest producer of the metal by quite a distance, and has most of the global reserves, too. Worryingly for the U.S., China is its main source of tungsten: between 2017 and 2020, China represented 32 percent of total tungsten imports. Russia, a Chinese ally, is the second largest producer of tungsten in the world. Bolivia, a country with close ties to China, is the third largest. In Rwanda, another major producer of the metal, CPC-backed miners are running riot.
According to Goldhub, a definitive source of gold data, China is the world’s largest producer of gold, accounting for 9 percent of global production. Russia comes in a close third, after Australia. Given China’s growing dominance in Africa, it should come as little surprise to find Chinese miners operating in Ghana, the gold mining powerhouse of Africa.
As is clear to see, the CHIPS Act is more symbolic than substantial, more ornamental than functional. It simply doesn’t mean much to say that America is going to become semiconductor-independent if it’s reliant on its greatest rival to provide all the essential components.
To make matters worse, experts are forecasting a major shortage of copper in the years ahead. Aluminum shortages are also likely to become more common. To compound matters, we are already witnessing a shortage of tungsten. Of course, these shortages will affect other countries across the globe, but China is far better equipped to weather the storm than the U.S. The CHIPS Act is a reactive, rather than proactive, measure. The bill was signed into effect a decade too late.
By 2030, the semiconductor industry will be worth $1 trillion, and China will account for 60 percent of that growth. The CHIPS Act is funneling $52 billion into semiconductor research and manufacturing. China, on the other hand, plans to invest well over $1.4 trillion before 2025.
All is not lost, of course. The Chinese economy is suffering from a huge debt overhang, and a long-predicted burst of its bubble may affect its ability to remain a semiconductor powerhouse. But, for all its flaws, China is resilient. If it manages to overcome its current economic anxieties, there’s reason to believe that it will control the semiconductor market, or at least the semiconductor narrative, for years to come. For the U.S, contrary to popular belief, the CHIPS are down, and unless America ups the ante, they may very well remain down for good.
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