Last Oct., the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) under the U.S. Department of Commerce announced a rule to stop exports of semiconductor chips to China. The U.S. has blocked exports to China since the previous Trump administration in the name of protecting national security and diplomatic policy interests. BIS’s rule aims to restrict China’s utilization of its semiconductor manufacturing capabilities by controlling the acquisition of advanced computing chips, the development and maintenance of supercomputers, and advanced semiconductors. It includes a ban on semiconductor equipment exports to Chinese semiconductor companies that produce logic chips with non-planar transistor architectures of 14nm or below, DRAM memory chips of 18nm half-pitch or less, and NAND flash memory chips with 128 layers or more. Among the U.S.’s checks on semiconductor hegemony, Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer, launched its smartphone, “Huawei Mate 60 Pro.”
Huawei’s launch had a big impact on the diplomatic and industrial sectors. First, according to an analysis by Techinsights, the authoritative information platform for the semiconductor industry in Canada, 7-nanometer (nm) processing has been applied to the Huawei Mate 60 Pro’s semiconductor. Professor Park Jun-young from the School of Electronics Engineering at CBNU said, “China’s 7nm processing falls short of 3nm and 5nm processing currently mass-produced by Samsung Electronics and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Limited (TSMC), but it is still a technology with a considerable market size. However, due to the characteristics of the semiconductor industry, ‘development success’ and ‘securing yield’ for mass production are different. Thus, it seems necessary to further confirm whether Huawei has established 7nm processing with sufficient yield.” Second, the semiconductor used in the Huawei Mate 60 Pro is Huawei’s own semiconductor, Kirin 9000S. Kirin 9000S is a chip manufactured by Huawei’s semiconductor design subsidiary HiSilicon, which is in charge of production by Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), a Chinese semiconductor contract manufacturing company (foundry). Despite the difficult situation of the U.S. sanctions on China, the achievement of localizing its semiconductors is enough to raise tension in the U.S.-China semiconductor hegemony war.
On Sep. 6, Mike Gallagher, the Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Strategic Competition Subcommittee, suggested that SMIC may have violated the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Foreign Direct Product Rules (FDPR), which allows the U.S. government to prohibit exports of products made by foreign companies that use the U.S.controlled software or technology. Despite the U.S.’s hard line response starting an investigation because of the possibility of violating export restrictions on semiconductors, China continues to focus on technological advancement.
In 2023, China is maintaining its influence in the global semiconductor supply chain. The Chinese government has announced plan to establish an investment fund of approximately KRW 54.7 trillion, with a significant portion allocated to semiconductor manufacturing equipment. According to this plan, China launched the aforementioned smartphone and stopped purchasing the U.S. Micron products in May, and began controlling the export of next-generation semiconductor materials, such as gallium and germanium, starting in Aug. Moreover, the Chinese government recently issued a ban on the use of the U.S. and foreign-branded devices, including iPhones, by central government officials. Apple, which depends on the Chinese market for 19% of its total revenue, faced a 3.85% drop in its stock price due to a combination of anti-Apple sentiment related to the ban and patriotic marketing through Huawei. Prof. Park commented, “If the U.S. holds a lead in the semiconductor war, in the short term, the U.S. may suffer economic losses in the semiconductor market, as seen in Apple’s situation. However, in the long term, it could bring greater benefits to the interests of allied nations through countering China and Russia’s weapon production and suppressing space technology. Therefore, the U.S. will accept these consequences and proceed to create a new Cold War era.” This suggests that the U.S. is willing to endure short-term economic setbacks to secure leadership in the semiconductor hegemony war.
In practice, the U.S. is seeking to contain China through cooperation with neighboring countries. In a high-level meeting on Jan. 27 involving officials from the U.S., Japan, and the Netherlands at the White House, Netherlands and Japan agreed to join the U.S. in restricting exports of semiconductor equipment to counter China’s advanced weapon development. Additionally, the U.S. has been strengthening its economic ties with Vietnam, the country with the second-largest reserves of rare-earth elements after China, which are crucial for the production of lithium-ion batteries for mobile phones and electric vehicles. Expanding semiconductor and rare-earth elements trade with Vietnam would help Vietnam become a major producer of rare-earth elements and reduce China’s influence in the global supply chain. Professor Yoon Sung-wook from the Dept. of Political Science and International Relations at CBNU stated, “Considering these current situations, there is a higher likelihood that the U.S. will further strengthen sanctions against China in the field of advanced technology. The U.S. is likely to exert more pressure on neighboring countries, especially semiconductor-producing and exporting countries, as well as allied nations, to actively participate in isolating and sanctioning China.”
The intensifying semiconductor hegemony war between the U.S. and China, triggered by the release of the Huawei Mate 60 Pro, demonstrates the acceleration of desinicization and the potential for technological development in China. Prof. Yoon noted, “While some argue that easing the ongoing the U.S. sanctions on China in the semiconductor sector could benefit the U.S. companies, what we need to pay attention to is whether the U.S. will formulate policies to strengthen current sanctions against China in light of this recent development.”
By Jeong Ha-yeon