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How Silicon Chips Rule the World

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When I first arrived in Taiwan as a college student in the summer of 1973, there was no ambiguity whatsoever about the American role on the island.Over the previous two years, President Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, had opened relations with the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. But a short distance away in Taiwan, which the People’s Republic considers a breakaway province, U.S. Air Force jets soared overhead. There was a U.S. base right in Taipei, within walking distance of my favorite bookstore.After reading Chinese philosophy, I’d drop by the base canteen for a fix of cheeseburgers, Coca-Cola and rock ’n’ roll. At night, the local bars were often filled with hard-partying G.I.s, flown in from Vietnam for rest and recreation.As an American in Taipei, you understood in a visceral way that you were living in an outpost of the American empire in Asia, protected by the American military.Now, while Taiwan remains a close ally, it is also protected by something far more subtle — its absolutely central role in world markets.The ‘silicon shield’More specifically, Taiwan is a colossus in the global market for semiconductors, the brains of modern electronics. Taiwan takes some comfort in what its president, Tsai Ing-wen, calls its “silicon shield” — its mastery of the ma …

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