China Bets on Open-Source RISC-V Chips Amid US Export Controls

As the US tightens semiconductor restrictions, China bets on open-source RISC-V chips to reduce Western tech dependence. A patent published in September 2023 by a military institute under the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sheds light on the intensity of this move.  

The patent filing revealed that the Chinese military institute utilized RISC-V, an open-source standard, to enhance the performance of chips for smart cars and cloud computing.

China Emerges as Global Leader in RISC-V Development

Notably, the US and UK export controls ban the sales of the most cutting-edge x86 and Arm designs, which produce the highest-performance chips, to clients in China.

However, the RISC-V, which is open-sourced, contrasts sharply with the currently dominant standards x86 and Arm, which are proprietary and closed systems controlled by American and British companies, respectively. 

While RISC-V chips still lag behind Arm and x86 in complex computing capabilities, the gap has steadily closed as RISC-V startups proliferate globally and more technology giants invest R&D into the open standard. 

For China, RISC-V offers a potential long-term path to end reliance on Western intellectual property and develop a homegrown alternative that can one day challenge the x86-Arm duopoly. 

The open-source nature of RISC-V makes it an ideal choice as Chinese companies and research institutions seek to withstand American sanctions and build next-generation chips.

China has heavily invested in RISC-V, with estimates of over $50 million going into related projects between 2018-2023.

By 2022, half of the over 10 billion RISC-V chips shipped globally will have already been manufactured in China. Chinese RISC-V startups have received around $1.18 billion in funding in recent years. 

In 2021, China accounted for 1061 out of the global total of 2508 RISC-V patents filed internationally.

Significant contributors include Chinese tech giants like Alibaba and Huawei, alongside universities and research institutes linked to Beijing. Advanced RISC-V chips designed and produced in China can power everything from self-driving cars, artificial intelligence models, and data centers to networked devices. 

Critical Role of Military Research in Advancing RISC-V

China’s military has demonstrated a vital strategic interest in harnessing RISC-V to achieve self-sufficiency in defense electronics and computing. Chinese universities and laboratories closely linked to the defense establishment, like the PLA’s National University of Defense Technology, are among the top patent filers. 

At academic conferences, researchers from defense partners like Beihang University have presented RISC-V chip designs for radar and other signal-processing roles. 

The state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences, a think tank that serves as a critical military supplier, has developed RISC-V processors for cybersecurity and unveiled high-performance supercomputing designs. 

For China’s military, achieving self-reliance in semiconductor technology through RISC-V is a strategic priority.

Although RISC-V still commands just around 1.9% of the global market share in chips, its customization, efficiency, and cost advantages have attracted significant international chipmakers. 

Qualcomm, a leader in smartphone processors, calls RISC-V ideal for designing highly customized AI acceleration cores. As demand for specialized AI and machine learning chips grows across industries, RISC-V provides flexibility to tailor solutions without the overheads of licensing and royalties. 

While it will take time for RISC-V to challenge the dominance of x86 and Arm truly, China is making a long-term bet on the standard’s potential amidst an increasingly tense geopolitical climate. 

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