The risk of accidental damage to Taiwan’s semiconductor foundries is often cited as a possible deterrence of any potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. That’s because China, like most of the world, is highly reliant on the high-end chips that these foundries produce. Defending the same chips, meanwhile, is cited as a potential reason for the U.S. to intervene in any such invasion, because the U.S. “cannot afford” to allow the technology to fall into China’s hands. A quite different version of events has again been highlighted in recent days though, that being the possibility that Taiwan itself could choose to deliberately dismantle, disrupt, or even blow up its own industry in the event of an invasion.
Speaking to CNN last week, Mark Liu (劉德音), chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), the world’s largest chip manufacturer, said: “Nobody can control TSMC by force … If you take a military force or invasion, you will render [the] TSMC factory not operable. Because this is such a sophisticated manufacturing facility, it depends on real-time connection with the outside world, with Europe, with Japan, with the U.S., from materials to chemicals to spare parts to engineering software and diagnosis.” In short, according to Liu, any idea of China simly taking over operations of the foundries is a fantasy because the processes behind these facilities are so fragile and reliant on cooperation, that coercion won’t work. Production would stop.
Around the same time, speaking to Yahoo Finance, cyber security scholar Herbert Lin of Stanford University pointed out the possibility of going even further. “You could make a rational argument that the West would be a whole lot better off having the Taiwanese chip industry be a smoking hole in the ground than being under Chinese control,” Lin said, though he added by email that this is only one possible position and a rational case can be made for the opposite position too.
Both of these ideas have been floated regularly in the past. Notably, a 2021 paper in the U.S. Army War College Quarterly: Parameters specifically postulated the option of blowing up the semiconductor foundries as a part of its “broken nest” theory of warding off a Chinese invasion with the threat of self-sabotage. Later, this paper would become the publication’s most downloaded paper of the year. But destruction or massive disruption of the manufacturing of these chips nevertheless remains a profoundly depressing thought, even amongst all of the other potentially horrific implications of a war.
Taiwan manufactures around two thirds of the world’s semiconductors. For the most advanced chips, that percentage shoots up to 92 percent, according to a report by Boston Consulting. Other countries are investing billions trying to catch up, including the U.S. and China, but the supply chains behind the chips are extremely tight and that makes the prospect difficult. The founder of TSMC warned last year that it is “impossible” to create a complete semiconductor supply chain in the U.S. and China’s investment has so far resulted in huge losses and scandal, while TSMC’s revenue has continued to grow. Any significant disruption to Taiwan’s semiconductor industry, then, could cut billions of dollars from the world’s economies as the effects ripple through the 169 different industries Goldman Sachs recently identified as being affected by chip shortages. But there’s also more to it than that.
The value of these chips is not just financial. The technology used to create them employs lenses so precise they could focus a laser beam on a pingpong ball on the moon, while the chips themselves are as thin as five times a 100,000th the thickness of a human hair. In a world of relative technological stagnation, they’re as good as human ambition gets right now. And so to see their destruction become either rational or inevitable is simply pretty grim. Or, as economic historian Adam Tooze explained to the Ezra Klein Show a few months ago: “The global semiconductor industry isn’t just the supply chain. It’s one of humanity’s great technological scientific achievements. Our ability to do this stuff at nanoscale is us up against the face of God in a sense. And it happens to be in Taiwan, and are we seriously going to talk about D-Day style amphibious operations — you know, and dig trenches, and attach explosive devices to fabs, which are the human spirit incarnate? Like, there’s something totally incongruous about this, right?” Right.
Image credit: Briaxis F. Mendes (孟必思), Wikipedia