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Overview: RISC - V: China's Quest for Self- Sufficiency; By: Sapna Elsa Abraham

Image Courtesy: Wccftech

Article: 40/2023

The United States and China have engaged in a technological conflict since the Trump administration, with the U.S. imposing sanctions on the transfer of high technology to China to curb the growth of the Asian giant. These restrictions continue to persist under President Joe Biden's administration, which has implemented measures to further regulate and control technological progress by China using U.S. technologies. The tensions have escalated recently, with U.S. senators expressing concern and advocating for regulations on the ‘RISC - V’ open architecture, developed in the USA, amid claims that China is 'exploiting' it for its technological advancements.

RISC-V is an open-source instruction set architecture (ISA) with RISC standing for ‘Reduced Instruction Set Computer’ which is used to produce processors for various applications. An instruction set is in simple terms the language that is used to send instructions to a processor. Traditionally, the processor blueprints have been under proprietorship or owned by different companies. RISC V regulated by RISC V International has free-to-licence for use by any one and can implement the changes in accordance to their specification. Typically ISA owned by companies like ARM or x86 is expensive to purchase, restricting the use and modifications of these. RISC V allows designing integrated circuits at a lower cost based on RISC.

RISC V is garnering significant global attention, particularly from China, because of its open chip design. This design fosters a collaborative ecosystem for processor development without requiring access costs in the billions of dollars. Tech giants like Nvidia, Qualcomm and Google are getting into RISC V.

In the past few years, RISC V has been gaining momentum in China since its inception in 2015 due to the fear of increased restrictions by the USA. In the pursuit of developing its domestic semiconductor ecosystem free of US interventions and reliance, the Chinese government has been taking measures to fulfil this dream and moving to an open source architecture is one among them. The initial stage of semiconductor development, involving chip design, has traditionally been dominated by Western countries, particularly the United States, with Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) playing a pivotal role in this domain. This Open source is being used by China to achieve this. In 2020, the PRC’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and Cyberspace Affairs Commission (CAC) highlighted the importance of open source communities for industrial digitalization in an Implementation Plan for Digital Economy Development in the 14th Five-Year Plan 60 (2021-2025). NDRC further encouraged the development of open source algorithms in its March 2021 AI Innovation Work Plan. RISC V among these open sources is gaining more traction.

China has been preparing for any further restrictions that the US would impose on its technological advancement. Adopting RISC V could be China’s alternative to the market leading chip design architectures by western Softbank’s ARM and Intel’s x86. Using the RISC V technology also provides a lot of flexibility to the chip design unlike proprietary based ISA’s which makes it difficult for customisation. ARM a British and X86 the most used designs could face sanctions from the US for selling its designs to Chinese companies. RISC V designs based in Switzerland will help China to tide over any such restrictions. Being Open Source also ensures that it can be out of export control to an extent.

The Chinese government in the past year has taken keen interest in the development of RISC V, with the Ministry of Science and Technology and the National Science Foundation China actively inviting proposals for RISC-V research according to Yun Gang Bao from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). China has been embracing RISC V with more universities using it for teaching, and a textbook based on RISC-V now available according to Mr. Yu Gang Bao.

Image courtesy: RISC-V International

The Chinese government facilitated the establishment of "China RISC V Alliance '' which is dedicated to patent sharing, preventing legal disputes related to patent infringements and collectively licensing these technlogies. Their objective is to cultivate a robust open-source chip ecosystem and accelerate the advancement of RISC-V technologies. China RISC V Industry alliance include VeriSilicon Microelectronics, Xinlai Technology, Alibaba-linked Pingtouge (aka T-Head), Shanghai Saifang Technology, Shanghai Shiqing Technology, Juquan Optoelectronics, Shanghai Hengrui Intellectual Property Services Co., Ltd., and Xinsiyuan Microelectronics.

China is leading the adoption and innovation of RISC V technology. Approximately 70 Chinese companies have joined RISC-V International, making China the third-largest contributor of members after the European Union with 87 members and the United States with 77 members.

Image courtesy: RISC-V International

According to IDC, the majority of servers that are being sold in China are based on x86 processors from AMD and Intel, which is open to restrictions from the USA. The country’s aim will be to produce these locally and reduce its reliance on the west and US. Following Huawei's inclusion in the U.S. blacklist, the company encountered challenges in acquiring design architecture from ARM. Huawei, a leading Tech company in China is a major player in the RISC V push in China. A report by S & P states that China has little presence in intellectual property (IP) cores, particularly those used for IC design on key microprocessor architectures such as ARM or x86. This makes it difficult for China to develop its advanced chips. China is leveraging open-source architectures such as RISC-V to develop its own IP cores for microprocessor designs. However closing the gap in these segments will take significant time, resources, and persistence. It would be difficult for China to close the gap also as RISC V is being developed across the world and it will take time to catch up in providing reliable and popular designs.

In 2021, Huawei announced that it has released its first RISC-V development module, HiSilicon Hi3861 development board. StarFive, based in Shanghai, is manufacturing CPUs based on RISC-V architecture with the aim of substituting ARM's technology in computing, data centres, telecommunications equipment, and industrial applications.

Image courtesy: RISC-V International

According to Ni Guangnan, China’s famous academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE), RISC-V has gained support from various sectors in China, including the government, industry, academia, and research institutions, due to its advanced architecture and open-source nature.

Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has been leading the cause by unveiling its new high performance processor Chip named ‘Xiangshan’ open source high performance RISC V processor and also a new operating system called Aolai. CAS, blacklisted by USA, has been developing open source 64-bit RISC-V cores, with major design updates every six months. “The grassroots effort is focused on drawing academic and startup interest in RISC-V”. For example, CAS’s goal is to introduce chip design based on RISC-V early in the education process.

Chinese companies have already released many RISC-V boards. In 2023, Sophon released a 64-core RISC-V CPU, and other companies that include StarFive and Allwinner have RISC-V CPU designs and boards that can be purchased through Chinese retail sites. 

Hexin Technology, a CPU developer from China, said that it had powered its HX-C2000 TC2, the second-gen test chip of its upcoming HX-C2000 processor based on the RISC instruction set architecture.

Alibaba, a major Chinese technology company, has claimed that it has developed the initial commercial server driven by a processor constructed based on the RISC-V CPU architecture. In October, 2023, China’s Shandong University deployed a server cluster with RISC-V CPUs. The system has a total of 3,072 cores, with 48 nodes of 64-bit RISC-V CPUs

RISC-V CPUs have gained extensive adoption in China and the leading ten RISC-V startups in China have collectively secured funding exceeding $1 billion. According to RISC V International. China actively participates in various RISC-V ecosystem projects, enjoying broad support in both research and education.

Increased use of RISC V in China has attracted speculations from the USA and Congress. A US Congressional Report titled “China’s New Semiconductor Policies: Issues for Congress” published in 2021 sees China using U.S led open source technology platforms as a threat.

US lawmakers have been pressuring the US government to introduce restrictions on the open source architecture to ensure. Two Republican House of Representatives committee chairmen, Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Mark Warner – are urging President Biden’s administration to take action soon, citing national security grounds. Considered to be a new battleground in the tech war, lawmakers should ideally have taken action against the RISC V International but the issue is much more complicated than that. RIC V international moved to Switzerland in 2020 to overcome any anti - China trade policy. According to the RISC V International website “RISC-V does not take a political position on behalf of any geography. We are proud to see organisations from around the world working together in this new era of processor innovation.” Foundation’s CEO, Calista Redmond, stated that the organisation moved its headquarters from the United States to Switzerland to ensure that members, which include Huawei and Alibaba, would not be subject to U.S. technology transfer restrictions.

RISC - V or any open source architecture would be used by China to embrace locally grown chips without the intervention of the West. RISC - V might have crossed leaps but the potential and backside of the platform is still too early to understand. The geopolitical tensions and its effects on Semiconductor ecosystem will continue to grow over the years. It will be vital for Chinese companies to work in unison to develop the chip based on designs from RISC V and pushing the potential of this platform. Chances of American companies voicing out stronlgy against such restrictions is very high.

(Ms. Sapna Elsa Abraham is a research officer at C3S. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)


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