Cover: Supply Chain Interdependence and Geopolitical Vulnerability

Supply Chain Interdependence and Geopolitical Vulnerability

The Case of Taiwan and High-End Semiconductors

Published Mar 13, 2023

by Bradley Martin, Laura H. Baldwin, Paul DeLuca, Natalia Henriquez Sanchez, Mark Hvizda, Colin D. Smith, N. Peter Whitehead

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Research Questions

  1. What are the geopolitical implications of Taiwan's dominance in global semiconductor production?
  2. How would the peaceful annexation or outright invasion of Taiwan by China affect the United States, its allies and partners, and the global economy?
  3. What are the United States' options for mitigating or reversing the unfavorable effects of either unification scenario?

Semiconductors have become an integral part of nearly every industry in advanced economies. The production of these semiconductors is largely centered in the western Pacific region and, for the highest-end semiconductors, exists almost entirely in Taiwan.

To assess the geopolitical implications of Taiwan's semiconductor dominance, the authors conducted a tabletop exercise (TTX) with representatives from the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government and a variety of industries that rely on semiconductors. The exercise revealed that there are generally no good short-term options for responding to the disruption to the global semiconductor supply chain that would result if China attempted to unify with Taiwan.

The importance of semiconductors in the broader economy means that strategic competition should be framed more broadly than its potential effect on military or political outcomes. The countries that can most easily withstand disruptions to semiconductor capacity in Taiwan have an upper hand in strategic competition. If the United States and its allies have this advantage, it could be a powerful deterrent to Chinese action against Taiwan. If China has the advantage, it could act against Taiwan with reduced likelihood of interference from the United States and its allies to mitigate its global economic risk.

In the TTX, the United States never gained an advantage and faced unfavorable outcomes in both peaceful and contested unification scenarios. This should be a call to action for the United States to assess options to increase semiconductor fabrication capacity.

Key Findings

  • The dominance of Taiwan over global semiconductor production creates geopolitical and economic vulnerabilities for the United States and its allies, as well as for Taiwan.
  • These vulnerabilities provide China with a potential asymmetric advantage.
  • Without preparation, a severe semiconductor supply disruption would have an immediate and significant impact on the U.S. economy and would create a national security challenge.
  • Because of the potential disruption to the global semiconductor supply chain and the absence of prior investment to create alternative semiconductor fabrication capacity, there are generally no good options for responding to either a peaceful or contested unification scenario.
  • Taking steps to support any Taiwanese resistance efforts could lead to broad and lengthy economic turbulence that would be politically unsustainable.
  • Any actions taken to offset the loss of semiconductor production access would likely lead to a long-term decline in economic output for the United States and its allies.
  • The vulnerabilities generated by Taiwan's dominance of the semiconductor supply chain were not well understood by any of the players who participated in the TTX.
  • Most of the players were unaware of (1) the degree of interdependence within the global semiconductor supply chain and (2) the time and expense that would be required to generate an alternative supply.

Recommendations

  • The U.S. government should improve its analysis and understanding of the semiconductor supply chain specifically and the degree of supply chain interdependence in general.
  • An immediate and concerted effort should be made to reduce the concentration of semiconductor production in Taiwan.
  • The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC) should be incentivized to move at least some production out of Taiwan.
  • Irrespective of TSMC actions, governments should take action to strengthen both domestic and allied semiconductor production.
  • The United States should coordinate with its allies to discourage and heavily regulate the movement of facilities and equipment to China.
  • Collaborative relationships with allied governments and industries are essential, even if such relationships run counter to the normal impulse to keep sectors separate.
  • Executive agencies need to engage with industry partners to identify the strengths and vulnerabilities of the U.S. position within the global semiconductor supply chain.
  • Instead of acting unilaterally, Washington should engage its allies and partners to respond as a united, multinational bloc.

Funding for this research was made possible by the independent research and development provisions of RAND's contracts for the operation of its U.S. Department of Defense federally funded research and development centers. This research was conducted within the Navy and Marine Forces Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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