US is assessing national security threats from China’s adoption of RISC-V chip technology

According to a letter shared with US lawmakers, the Department of Commerce is assessing the national security implications of China’s efforts in open-source RISC-V chip technology.

The US administration is reviewing the risks associated with China’s use of RISC-V chip technology, which has become an essential instrument for Chinese companies and government institutions aiming to compete with US technology in semiconductor design.

Pronounced ‘risk five,’ open-source RISC-V competes directly with Arm, a proprietary technology developed by Arm Holdings, a leading UK-based semiconductor and software design firm. RISC-V can be used in many applications, from smartphone processors to the most powerful AI chips. The US House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party had previously recommended that an interagency government committee investigate potential risks associated with RISC-V. Discussions are ongoing over extending export restrictions to prevent US firms and citizens from aiding Chinese entities in developing RISC-V. Chairman Mike Gallagher (R-WI) Chairman and Ranking Member Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) with Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) expressed concern that the Chinese Communist Party is attempting to use RISC-V’s design architecture to undermine US export controls.

Why does it matter?

Last November, a group of 18 US House representatives and senators sent a letter to Gina Raimondo, Commerce Secretary, probing the Biden administration on its strategy to stop China ‘from achieving dominance in RISC-V technology and leveraging that dominance at the expense of US national and economic security.’

RISC-V has already been adopted by Chinese tech giants like Huawei and Alibaba, thereby opening a new battleground in the current tech war between the US and China over advanced chip technology.
In the letter sent to lawmakers last week and seen by Reuters, the Commerce Department confirmed that it is ‘working to review potential risks and assess whether there are appropriate actions under Commerce authorities that could effectively address any potential concerns.’

The Commerce Department also remarked that it would need to be cautious to avoid harming US companies that are part of foreign consortia working on RISC-V technologies, as further restrictions could undermine collaboration between American and Chinese companies over open technical standards.

While RISC-V was a project initiated at the University of California, Berkeley, and financed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), it is now governed by a Swiss nonprofit platform that coordinates for-profit firms’ efforts to develop the technology for the community. The US administration is alluding to the challenges faced by US tech companies participating in international standards groups after export controls on 5G technology were imposed on China.