Next month, Chinese leaders will ratify a plan to dominate the world’s semiconductor industry by 2025, in response to US restrictions on Chinese imports of high-end computer chips made with American equipment.

Directed against China’s telecom equipment makers Huawei and ZTE, the new US regulations published in July stop Huawei from producing its house-designed chips at Taiwan’s state-of-the-art fabricators.

Computer chips, the core technology of the digital age, are a top priority in China’s proposed US$1.4 trillion, five-year plan to leapfrog the US. Chinese initiatives include:

  1. Hiring of thousands of Taiwan’s chip manufacturing engineers to work on the mainland at double pay;
  2. A new research alliance with Russia, a scientific powerhouse that graduates more engineers each year than the US;
  3. A no-budget crash program to ramp up production of state-of-the-art chips in China; and
  4. Semiconductor production lines purged of American equipment.

The US Semiconductor Manufacturing Association warned in a July 14 memorandum to the Commerce Department that the restrictions on chip sales to China would throttle the revenues of American firms and force them to reduce R&D.   

“More than 73% of American chips can be substituted with readily available foreign alternatives. The changes as reported would have limited or eliminated – as a legal and as a practical matter given market reactions – the ability of the semiconductor industry to sell into China, one of our largest and growing markets, accounting for nearly one-third of sales.

“The changes would have reduced revenues of the industry in the US, which in turn would reduce our ability to invest in research necessary to maintain market leadership. …overly broad restrictions would reduce US revenue by 37% and lead to a corresponding drop in US market share of 18%, with a corresponding decline in R&D investments.”

China is poaching semiconductor engineers from Taiwan. Image: Facebook

China imports $300 billion of computer chips a year, and its efforts to build a domestic semiconductor manufacturing industry have so far yielded mediocre results. This is about to change, as China raids engineers from Taiwan, the undisputed world center of chip fabrication.

Chinese firms had already hired 3,000 Taiwanese chip engineers as of the end of last year, according to numerous reports. Earlier this year, China lured 100 of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing’s top engineers and Taiwanese media reports that executive recruiters are hiring aggressively for the mainland.

US semiconductor industry experts say that hiring the key people is the only way to get fast results. “Process technology is really complicated in semiconductors,” said the former head of a major US fabrication facility who requested anonymity. “It takes a long time to work out the problems in a production line. You have to hire the people who’ve done it before.”

China’s biggest semiconductor manufacturer, SMIC, can produce chips with a transistor gate width of 14-nanometers, enough to power 5G base stations or low-end Huawei smartphones. Only Taiwan Semiconductor and South Korea’s Samsung can produce the 7-nanometer chips in Huawei’s top-of-the-line phones. 

Industry sources earlier this year revealed that Samsung had built an experimental production line for 7-nanometer chips with no US equipment, but it does not appear that the Korean giant has agreed to produce chips for Huawei.

Instead, Huawei plans to build its own fabrication plants, according to Chinese-language tech blogs and message boards. Huawei’s “Tashan” chip fabrication project was first leaked by Weibo blogger “Peng Peng Jun” on August 13.

Unable to fabricate its own chip designs in Taiwan due to US restrictions on sales of semiconductors made with US equipment, Huawei is building its own production facilities with a de-Americanized production line.

A Huawei 5G promotion in Beijing. Image: AFP

“Tashan” reportedly will produce older and less efficient 45-nanometer chips to power laptop computers, 5G base stations and other devices that do not require the same degree of miniaturization as smartphones. Huawei has been a constant source of surprises, though.

In April 2018, the Donald Trump Administration stopped the sale of Qualcomm chips to ZTE in retaliation for the Chinese company’s violation of American sanctions on Iran. The company virtually shut down and trading in its stock was suspended.

In return for accepting a massive fine and American monitors, ZTE was allowed to resume purchasing US chips. The following December, Huawei rolled out its own Kirin chipset design that matched and in some ways bested Qualcomm’s offering.

China’s new capacity to design top-of-the-line chips, including Kirin and the Ascend chipset for Artificial Intelligence servers, took Washington by surprise. By December 2019, the White House was prepared to retaliate against Huawei by banning sales of chips with US technology content.

American semiconductor manufacturers, with the support of the Defense Department, talked the Trump administration off the ledge with the same arguments that the Semiconductor Industry Association made in its August 12 memo. In short, a ban on Chinese purchases of high-end US chips would hurt the American chip industry more than China.

With a virtually unlimited budget for chip fabrication and access to Taiwan’s best talent, China will move up the learning curve much faster than Washington anticipates, semiconductor industry sources predict.

A circuit board for smart devices. Photo: iStock
Representational image of a computer chip used in smartphones. Image: iStock

Odds are that Huawei will be able to produce a state-of-the-art 7-nanometer Kirin chipset inside China without US equipment before the end of 2021.

Industry estimates suggest Huawei has a year’s worth of Taiwan-fabricated chipsets inventory for its high-end smartphones and may be able to continue selling the Mate 40 without interruption until local capacity comes online.

Meanwhile, Huawei is expanding its R&D operations, notably in Russia, where it also is building the national 5G broadband system.

Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei last week said “After the United States included us in the Entity List, we transferred our investment in the United States to Russia, increased Russian investment, expanded the Russian scientist team and increased the salary of Russian scientists,”  according to the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Wechat page.