Semiconductors and Components

China’s chip industry is gaining momentum – it could alter the global economic and security landscape

03 March 2024
SMIC fab in Shanghai, China. Source: Micah Sittig/CC BY 2.0

China’s national champions for computer chip – or semiconductor – design and manufacturing, HiSilicon and Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), are making waves in Washington D.C.

SMIC was long considered a laggard. Despite being the recipient of billions of dollars from the Chinese government since its founding in 2000, it remained far from the technological frontier. But that perception — and the self-assurance it gave the U.S. — is changing.

In August 2023, Huawei launched its high-end Huawei Mate 60 smartphone. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (an American think tank based in Washington D.C.), the launch “surprised the U.S.” as the chip powering it showed that Chinese self-sufficiency in HiSilicon’s semiconductor design and SMIC’s manufacturing capabilities were catching up at an alarming pace.

More recent news that Huawei and SMIC are scheming to mass-produce so-called 5 nm processor chips in new Shanghai production facilities has only stoked further fears about leaps in their next-generation prowess. These chips remain a generation behind the current cutting-edge ones, but they show that China’s move to create more advanced chips is well on track, despite U.S. export controls.

The U.S. has long managed to maintain its clear position as the frontrunner in chip design, and has ensured it was close allies who were supplying the manufacturing of cutting-edge chips. But now it faces formidable competition from China, who’s technological advance carries profound economic, geopolitical and security implications.

Semiconductors are a big business

For decades, chipmakers have sought to make ever more compact products. Smaller transistors result in lower energy consumption and faster processing speeds, so massively improve the performance of a microchip.

Moore’s Law — the expectation that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years — has remained valid in chips designed in the Netherlands and the U.S., and manufactured in Korea and Taiwan. Chinese technology has therefore remained years behind. While the world’s frontier has moved to 3 nm chips, Huawei’s homemade chip is at 7 nm.

Maintaining this distance has been important for economic and security reasons. Semiconductors are the backbone of the modern economy. They are critical to telecommunications, defense and artificial intelligence.

The U.S. push for “made in the U.S.A” semiconductors has to do with this systemic importance. Chip shortages wreak havoc on global production since they power so many of the products that define contemporary life.

Today’s military prowess even directly relies on chips. In fact, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “all major U.S. defence systems and platforms rely on semiconductors.”

The prospect of relying on Chinese-made chips — and the backdoors, Trojan horses and control over supply that would pose — are unacceptable to Washington and its allies.

Stifling China’s chip industry

Since the 1980s, the U.S. has helped establish and maintain a distribution of chip manufacturing that is dominated by South Korea and Taiwan. But the U.S. has recently sought to safeguard its technological supremacy and independence by bolstering its own manufacturing ability.

Through large-scale industrial policy, billions of dollars are being poured into U.S. chip manufacturing facilities, including a multi-billion dollar plant in Arizona.

The second major tack is exclusion. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States has subjected numerous investment and acquisition deals to review, ultimately even blocking some in the name of U.S. national security. This includes the high-profile case of Broadcom’s attempt to buy Qualcomm in 2018 due to its China links.

In 2023, the U.S. government issued an executive order inhibiting the export of advanced semiconductor manufacturing equipment and technologies to China. By imposing stringent export controls, the U.S. aims to impede China’s access to critical components.

The hypothesis has been that HiSilicon and SMIC would continue to stumble as they attempt self-sufficiency at the frontier. The U.S. government has called on its friends to adopt a unified stance around excluding chip exports to China. Notably, ASML, a leading Dutch designer, has halted shipments of its hi-tech chips to China on account of U.S. policy.

Washington has also limited talent flows to the Chinese semiconductor industry. The regulations to limit the movements of talent are motivated by the observation that even “godfathers” of semiconductor manufacturing in Japan, Korea and Taiwan went on to work for Chinese chipmakers — taking their know-how and connections with them.

This, and the recurring headlines about the need for more semiconductor talent in the U.S., has fuelled the clampdown on the outflow of American talent.

Finally, the U.S. government has explicitly targeted China’s national champion firms: Huawei and SMIC. It banned the sale and import of equipment from Huawei in 2019 and has imposed sanctions on SMIC since 2020.

What’s at stake?

The “chip war” is about economic and security dominance. Beijing’s ascent to the technological frontier would mean an economic boom for China and bust for the U.S.. And it would have profound security implications.

Economically, China’s emergence as a major semiconductor player could disrupt existing supply chains, reshape the division of labor and distribution of human capital in the global electronics industry. From a security perspective, China’s rise poses a heightened risk of vulnerabilities in Chinese-made chips being exploited to compromise critical infrastructure or conduct cyber espionage.

Chinese self-sufficiency in semiconductor design and manufacturing would also undermine Taiwan’s “silicon shield”. Taiwan’s status as the leading manufacturer of semiconductors has so far deterred China from using force to attack the island.

China is advancing its semiconductor capabilities. The economic, geopolitical and security implications will be profound and far-reaching. Given the stakes that both superpowers face, what we can be sure about is that Washington will not easily acquiesce, nor will Beijing give up.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on The Conversation; it appears here thanks to its CC BY-ND 4.0 license.

About the authors

Robyn Klingler-Vidra, Ph.D, is associate dean, global engagement, and associate professor in entrepreneurship and sustainability at King’s business school. Her research focuses on entrepreneurship, innovation,and sustainability and has been published in leading peer-reviewed journals, including International Affairs, New Political Economy and Regulation & Governance.

Steven Hai, Ph.D, is an affiliate fellow at King’s Institute for Artificial Intelligence, King’s College London. His research sheds light on the political economy and comparative governance of emerging technology, inclusive innovation, digital entrepreneurship, and sustainable development in China, the Global South, and global techno-developmental economies.

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