No single development has had as great an impact on how we live today than the microchip. The world’s military powers seized on the immense potential of computers to refine the art of war, which became more precise and deadlier: whoever took the lead in the technological arms race gained an advantage.
In one instance, however, computer technology became a deterrent against the folly of warfare. Small enough to fit in the palm of the hand, the computer chip guaranteed Taiwan’s survival.
So argues Craig Addison in his documentary Silicon Shield: Two Chinas, One World. More so than any other flash point across the globe, the Taiwan Strait exemplifies how the semiconductor has not only made our world smaller, but changed the nature of warfare forever — and not for the reasons you might think.
For the 25 years after the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) scrambled across the Taiwan Strait following its defeat to the Communists in 1949, the focus of the many academics, diplomats and military experts who tackled the question of Taiwan was on how, through conventional balance-of-power means, war could be averted. Weapons were sold, alliances pitting the “free world” against a seemingly communist front were made, and the world held its breath as the brinkmanship of Chiang Kai-chek (蔣介石) and Mao Zedong (毛澤東) threatened international security, more so after China successfully detonated its first nuclear device in October 1964.
Gradually, as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) gained diplomatic recognition, the isolation of the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC) became increasingly acute.
Seeing the writing on the wall and understanding that isolation exacerbated the threat to the ROC’s survival, the government in Taipei launched an initiative in the 1970s to turn Taiwan’s mostly labor-intensive industrial base into a high tech one. This achievement, which through interviews with key participants and historical footage Silicon Shield outlines with brio, would not have been possible without the dedication of former premier Sun Yun-suan (孫運璿), who spearheaded the initiative and sought help from overseas Taiwanese. Top engineers and scientists, among them Pan Wen-yuan (潘文淵), were brought back to Taiwan to brainstorm about the future of the country. In a matter of days, Pan elaborated a strategy that would spawn an economic miracle.
In 1976, Taiwan sent a team of young, bright Taiwanese to the US to study the nascent field of semiconductors and bring back the know-how. That same year, US electronics manufacturer RCA licensed its 7-micron metal oxide semiconductor (MOS) process (which lagged about a decade behind the most advanced technology at the time) to Taiwan for US$3.5 million. This was a huge gamble and Sun put his career on the line when detractors criticized the millions of dollars that were being spent on a “novelty.”
But the leap of faith paid off, as back in the US, a pair of young technicians — Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak — produced the first commercially successful computer.
The rest, of course, is history and Taiwan happened to be in the right place at the right time. Computers needed memory chips, and Taiwan, having successfully performed a technological leapfrog thanks to its investment in RCA and the bright young minds who made the technological transfer possible, soon became the nerve center of the semiconductor industry. By the 1990s, California’s Silicon Valley and Hsinchu, where most semiconductor manufacturers established themselves, were joined at the hip. Around that time, successful Taiwanese engineers working in the US, such as Morris Chang (張忠謀), then at Texas Instruments, were persuaded to return to Taiwan to lead the semiconductor revolution.