There is little doubt that on October 7th, 2022, by intensifying and widening its export controls the US engaged in a “hot war” against China by attempting to destroy that country’s capacity to develop further its semiconductor industry.
The US has effectively unleashed a campaign of industrial sabotage against China across this crucial industrial sector. Moreover, it enlisted the willing, and unwilling, support for its policy from Japan, the Netherlands, and Taiwan. The current G7 meeting has afforded an opportunity to demonstrate its attempt to coerce other European countries to provide additional support and sanctions. The UK doesn’t need coercing, it simply follows whatever the US does.
Any suggestion that this is simply “de-risking China”, as suggested by the US and echoed by Ursula von der Leyen, the “Voice of America in Europe”, is nonsense. The US launched its cold war during the final year of the Trump Administration, but it has been systematically and enthusiastically intensified by the Biden Administration. The G7 aim to set up a “to enable collective retribution on countries that impose their will on others ‘(White House 2023).
In the light of this initiative, a quotation from the G7 Leaders’ Statement (White House 2023), apparently at the behest of Germany, appears to deny any malintent towards China behind the actions discussed above, and that the G7 did not want to “harm China nor do we seek to thwart China’s economic progress and development.”
In relation to the impacts of the US-led sanctions on China’s semiconductor sector, endorsed by the G7, harm is precisely the intention. This G7 sentiment is at best hypocritical and at worst a lie to cover up unlawful international economic behaviour.
In this essay, I am not concerned to analyse the wide geopolitical conflict between the US and China, or the G7’s statements on that issue, instead I want to demonstrate both the comprehensive nature of the destructive attack on China’s semiconductor sector and the potential of China to manage the severe consequences.
The Impact of US Sanctions
The sanctions are wide and numerous. To appreciate their extent, it is first important to appreciate the complex nature of the semiconductor supply chain and how far China has to go to be able to be self-sufficient, and how far this is possible. See (Lloyd and Savic 2021) and (Allen 2023).
An indication of the gap that China is attempting to bridge is significant:
In addition to the national semiconductor fund of CNY204.2 billion (US$28.9 billion) support to the IC industry, the State Council (2020) issued a circular, Guo Fa No. 8 , in August 2020 on policies promoting the high-quality development of the IC and software industries (China Briefing 2020d). In the circular, to further optimise the business environment for the development of the IC and software industries, policy measures are put forward in eight areas, including fiscal as well as investment and financing.
However, though in the first half of 2020, China produced more than 100 billion IC chips, up 16.4% year-on-year, the nation still lacks the ability to produce the most advanced chips — the current state-of-the-art 7nm process can only be made by overseas foundries, such as TSMC and Samsung Electronics, and perhaps by Intel in about 12 months.
Indeed, the measures announced are to support chips down only to the 28nm size, again demonstrating the IC (integrated circuit) production gap which China has to bridge in terms of fully indigenous production facilities ( Lloyd and Savic 2021).
The complex nature of the sector is illustrated by a diagram from Allen (2023).
In practice, this means that China’s dreams of self-reliance will face multiple extremely challenging technological barriers that China must overcome simultaneously in order to extract any benefit or financial return on investment. Even if China succeeds in creating an advanced AI chip-design firm, Chinese foundries cannot fabricate the chips without advanced foreign equipment and chemicals, which are restricted by the export controls. International chip foundries will refuse to fabricate the Chinese designs because these are covered by the U.S. application of the Foreign Direct Product Rule on U.S. chip design software and U.S. manufacturing equipment.
The story is even more difficult for Chinese chip foundries, which cannot import the advanced production equipment they need to make chips better than the performance thresholds covered in the export controls (16 nm logic, 18 nm DRAM, and 128-layer NAND). Even if a Chinese semiconductor equipment firm succeeds in making a single type of advanced equipment domestically—an astonishingly difficult and expensive task—that piece of equipment is nearly useless by itself. In the same way that no commercial jet airliner can fly without wings, engines, electronics, and landing gear, only a complete set of semiconductor production equipment can produce a finished chip. (Allen 2023)
There is an added layer of complexity, beyond Allen’s diagram, as there are four types of IC companies: design companies, manufacture companies, assembly and testing companies, and integrated device manufacturing companies (IDMs). There is no sign yet of a Chinese integrated circuit design and manufacturing (IDM) company along the lines of say the US company Intel.
The intensified sanctions from the US, Japan, Taiwan, and the Netherlands impinge on all of the elements of the semiconductor value chain described by Allen. Currently China relies on chemicals from Japan, production equipment from the Netherlands, and design software from the U.S. China will need to establish Chinese alternatives for each element in this transnational value-chain.
Essentially, the US has embargoed China from any technology, software, and production equipment that may be employed to make advanced integrated circuits and to inhibit further advances in AI. Given the emphasis China places on the use of advanced technology in its socio-economic development this is a body blow.
As the information below indicates, China – rather than attacking the international trading order, as the US suggests is the case – has been strongly involved in supporting international trade and related institutional structure (unlike the USA) to achieve its aim of developing its semiconductor sector, a crucial element in China’s technological development strategy. This US charge is flimsy device to justify its intensifying its depredations against China.
Some examples of this interdependence with other countries are now indicated, as this interdependence has provided an opportunity for the US to mobilize these countries in a US-led alliance to damage China’s semiconductor sector.
Taiwan’s Key Role
The position of Taiwan has been critical to enabling China to avail itself of technology and products that would otherwise hinder its progress in the semiconductor market and in other technological areas such as AI.
This is revealed by the current dominance of Taiwan. Taiwan currently controls 46% of the foundry market and 61% of the global capacity for transistors with a size of less than 16 nm, making it a market leader in the production of semiconductors. Taiwan contributed 26% of the global income from semiconductor production and 64% of the global revenue from foundries in 2021. According to Trendforce (Chiao 2022), the global foundry will grow by 20% to $128.7 billion in 2022, and Taiwan’s income share will rise by two percent as well. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), a well-known local manufacturer, will expand its share from 53 percent to 56 percent, while United Microelectronics Corp. will own the remaining 13 percent.
The trade and investment links between Taiwan and China are interwoven strongly into the industrial fabric of their economic relationship. For instance, in the association with TSMC, China plans to produce 16nm fin field-effect transistor (FinFET) at a new ‘fab’ in Nanjing, in addition to the production of 20nm integrated circuits that it has been producing in commercial quantities at its site in Shanghai. This is part of a phased plan to eventually migrate to 12nm integrated circuits. This is a significant development for China’s semiconductor production. This plan and others are now very much in doubt as a result of the US-led sanctions, involving Taiwan.
Netherlands (Advanced Chip Production)
To produce advanced 7-nanometer chips, ultraviolet lithography machines that etch complex, microscopic circuitry into silicon wafers are required. Only a few companies are able to make these machines, ASML of the Netherlands plus Canon and Nikon in Japan. Of those three, ASML has the monopoly for supplying extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography, the latest technology. ASML has been supplying deep ultraviolet lithographic equipment to China for some time, enabling China to make the legacy chips of 16nm upwards, that are suitable for many common household products such as toasters, microwave ovens, and cars.
As a result of the US sanctions and the Dutch government’s agreement, ASML is barred from selling EUV machines to China. The aim is to stop China from producing its own state-of-the-art 7-nanometer chips. However, as the section below on China’s response to the US-led sanctions illustrates, this may not be the game-changer that the US expects.
Optics companies Doti Micro Technology and Optowide Technologies, both “little giants” in Chinese terminology, relied on foreign firms for some sourcing. From 2019 to 2021, Doti Micro was a substantial importer of resin products from Japanese firm Shimizo Sangyo Co. Ltd. In 2020 and 2021, Japan-based Ohara Corporation was a major supplier to Chinese optical glass companies.
Japan is obviously a competitor of China in the semiconductor sector market. For this reason, though its trade links with China, even in the area of technology, are deep. (For instance, China and Japan are closely linked in the ASEAN plus 3 group and within the massive RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) trade agreement). Though Japan may have an industrial policy reason for supporting the trade restriction on China being imposed by the US.
The Japanese government on May 23rd 2023 unveiled details of its updated list of regulated exports, which requires local companies to receive a license before selling 23 types of chip-making equipment to China. The curbs are set to take effect on July 23rd.
Optowide Technologies (see above) in 2019 bought optical glass components from German firm Schott AG and fibre optics equipment from U.S.-based Corning Inc. Documents from Chinese optics firm MLOptic, another supplier for SMEE’s lithography machines, also showed a reliance on German suppliers (Jarmillo 2023). . MLOptic’s 2022 annual report showed German optics companies CODIXX AG and Physik Instrumente as first and third biggest suppliers, together accounting for nearly 8% of procurements.
Trade links between Germany and China are strong, with major export volumes from Germany in the areas of motor vehicles, machinery, and electrical and electronic equipment. Generally, Germany has been reluctant to take trade restriction measures against China.
Notwithstanding the above, Germany appears willing to cut off Chinese companies in the semiconductor supply chain from important materials and components. For China’s optics industry, and by extension its efforts at developing advanced photolithography, this could present a major roadblock going forward. As with Japan, it remains to be seen how effectively German sanctions will be applied in practice.
One country, exporting to China and not yet fully signed up to the US-led restrictions is South Korea. South Korea is closely linked to China in trade and sees China as a substantial and expanding market for semiconductors.
The trade and investment links with China are considerable. South Korea is a trade-dependent economy (more than 70% of GDP). Its main trading partner has been China since 2003, and China plus Hong Kong account for more than 60% of South Korea’s chip export market. By comparison, the U.S. share is only 7.7%.
Whether to support the US chips embargo decision is a major dilemma for South Korean chipmakers. Samsung and SK Hynix have invested more than $30 billion, respectively, in building huge fabrication facilities in China.
Given these close regional economic and trade ties between South Korea and China, it will be interesting to see how far the country is willing to go to accommodate the US political pressure to act against China.
Overall Trade Impacts
The vast majority of the advanced Chinese chipmaking equipment producers are now on the banned US entity list, meaning they are too risky to have as a supplier for products where a long-term relationship is essential. (Department of Commerce EAR 2022). The 2022 list adds thirty-six further corporate and other entities to the banned entity list, “on the basis that these entities have been determined by the U.S. Government to be acting contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States”.
It seems unlikely that China will be ever able to have a completely domestic semiconductor supply chain as this aim is problematic for any single country. The complexity of semiconductor design, fabrication, testing, and assembly makes it difficult for any single country to be completely self-reliant. Hence, even though China is likely to have the highest semiconductor manufacturing capacity by 2030, this does not mean that the country will not be dependent on others in the international supply chain.
This scenario is unlike the US position where it does not seek domestic self-sufficiency because a) the U.S. controls some of the key elements of the supply chain, such as the chip design and semiconductor manufacturing equipment, and moreover, b) is able because of its ability and willingness to act extra-territorially to control other countries’ companies’ production, exporting, and financing arrangements.
This latest intensification of US trade sanctions will inflict further cumulative damage on the prospects of China achieving its aim to protect its semiconductor sector from these US-led depredations and to engage in international trade in the sectors involved. China is being driven towards autarky while being accused of seeking this path and damaging the international trading order.
The motivation for the US position is partly a crude and trade damaging attempt to seek its own autarkic trade position in the semiconductor sector and technological leadership. However, it appears also to be underpinned by a further desire for political ideological leadership and maintenance of its hegemonic position.
We can now look at what are the options for China to respond to the US-led sanctions and to assess how far China may be able to continue on its previously chosen development path for its semiconductor sector, in the context of its desire to achieve overall global supremacy in digital technology across all industrial sectors.
Technology, its development, and implementation is crucial to China’s overall socio-economic development and the speed of its progress as a country. The role of technology in China’s development strategy has been emphasized on many occasions by Xi Jinping. Both the aim and the difficulties may be illustrated by quoting from a recent book on the re-emergence of China over the past 30 years or so (Lloyd and Savic 2021):
The governing elites in modern China view technology as a fundamental driver of the internal development of China and, importantly also, its external development and a distinctive presentation of China in the 21st century.
Between 2014 and 2018, Chinese total IC revenue grew by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25% and accounted for some 20% of the global total. The revenue from electronic design automation (EDA) accounted for 39% of total Chinese IC revenue; the revenue from integrated circuit manufacturing accounted for about 28%; the revenue from integrated circuit packaging and testing, the low-value end of the semi-conductor industry, was 34%.
In addition, China remains dependent on IC imports — in 2018 these accounted for 84% of domestic demand while 80% of onshore production was in the hands of foreign companies, with Chinese output also concentrated in the lower end ICs.
Here the vulnerability of the Chinese tech sector has been exposed by US sanctions that limit Chinese access to American technology, elements of which are utilised by the key producers of high-end ICs and their semiconductor components. In turn, this threatens the underpinning of the whole Chinese tech sector and its digital revolution.
China is likely to pursue a number of strategies in response to the latest escalation of US-led sanctions targeted on its semiconductor and integrated circuit sectors, these can now be briefly discussed under various headings.
Production of the Required Size Chips
Despite the embargo on extreme ultraviolet (EUV) photo-lithography machines supplied by the Dutch ASML company, the deep ultraviolet (DUV) photo-lithography machines are still able to be supplied to China. In 2020 ASML sales to China were 2.7 billion euro, around 15% of the company’s revenue.
The US put SMIC on the US banned Entity List to effectively prevent the company from pursuing advanced process nodes below 14nm by restricting their access to ASML’s EUV machines.
Despite this constraint, there is evidence from Taiwan that TSMC, the global leader in semiconductor manufacturing, used Deep Ultraviolet Lithography (DUV) machines in the early stage of its 7nm volume production. Using DUV machines requires more layers of masks, which means more times of exposure and more complexity. This will lead to a lower yield rate and a higher cost for each chip, making such a process commercially unviable for export purposes.
However, the semiconductor industry is of such strategic importance for China, that having the capacity to make advanced chips is more important than the prices of these chips. It appears that SMIC is indeed moving ahead to use this older technology to achieve technological breakthroughs. In October 2020, it was reported that SMIC had successfully developed “quasi-7nm” chips with the FinFET N+1 process using DUV machines. (The Diplomat 2022)
The US is aware that China is a major semiconductor player from 20nm chip size upwards, but to attempt to place embargos affecting the production and use of these larger chips, used in many common products., would substantially impact the revenues of US companies. For instance, Applied Materials, which sells fabrication equipment, derives over 30%b of its revenues from China. In fact, even if the US maintains its position on these larger chips, several Chinese companies making fabrication equipment are likely to become competitive with Applied Materials’ equipment. An example of the progress already being made in relation to self-sufficiency.
Targeted Support for Chinese Companies
China has a long experience, in the context of its state-capitalist system, to providing financial support for both state-owned and private companies. The approach is not always successful, as many Western countries have found. However, the Chinese approach, combined with export exposure and experience has enabled some successful firms to emerge, Huawei is one example. Obviously, the US export bans, and other sanctions have reduced this efficiency-learning experience. However, other countries, especially in Asia, the Middle-East, and South America are still available as export markets.
There seems little doubt that, though the increased use of the domestic market may weaken the discipline provided, efficiently applied state support for appropriate companies should still see innovative progress.
China will be able to use its anti-trust legislation to block mergers and acquisitions involving U.S. semiconductor industry firms. Indeed, most of its extremely limited prohibitions using its anti-trust powers in the past have been in the semiconductor sector. This approach will surely be intensified, given that China must now tighten its previously relaxed approach to the operation of US companies in China.
An example, clearly emulating the US, is that the US semiconductor memory firm Micron is current undergoing a security review. Given the US anti-China measures it seems likely that the review will conclude by forcing Micron out of the Chinese market, with the loss of $ 3.3 billion annual sales revenue. Such an outcome would also enable China to persuade South Korea not to join the US export sanction regime as Micron’s loss would represent a potential gain of replacement sales by Samsung and SK Hynix.
Divide and Rule
The above example of retaliation would serve to persuade countries within the EU, some of whom have reluctantly gone along with the US to stand back from a full-out trade war with China in this sector. How far China would be likely to take significant retaliatory action against companies in Japan and In the Netherlands, as opposed to a diplomatic approach, relying on pointing out the mutual damage done by these internationally illegitimate (that is against WTO rules), is not clear. China’s approach in the past , even against the US, has been carefully calibrated.
In relation to South Korea, it is clear that there will be a battle for the economic soul of the country. Hence, although the demise of Micron would clearly benefit the Korean balance of trade with China, currently in deficit. However, South Korea is also pursuing self-sufficiency targets and the production capacity expansion planned to be built in China will now be located in Korea. Next year, South Korea, despite its smaller size, is forecast to overtake China as the world’s largest buyer of semiconductor, manufacturing equipment. It will be interesting to see whether the current close trade, economic, and financial links between China and South Korea will avoid Korea joining the US “crusade”.
So far, a similar though lesser mutual trade dependence between China and Japan has not prevented Japan apparently valuing political ties with the US over regional economic and trade ties with China. The outcome will also depend on how far the companies are willing to observe the spirit and the letter of the restrictions.
Accessing Foreign Technology
There are various ways in which, despite trade embargos, that China will be able to access foreign technology.
One means of access – avoiding the geographically-based export controls imposed by the US and others – is to use a digital route via cloud computing. For instance, it will be entirely legal for Chinese AI companies to import the desired size chips to a Chines subsidiary company based in another country and for Chinese programmers in China to access the necessary computing capacity via the cloud.
A less legal route to access is via industrial espionage. The US has constantly accused China of widespread industrial espionage over the past decade or so (as indeed it did the Japanese in the 60s and 70s). All countries, including the US engage in such espionage. The question is how effective it is? The US argues that memory chipmaker Micron has been the victim of massive theft and knowledge transfer to Chinese competitor Fujian Jinhua (Allen 2023)
Some commentators, however, suggest that often the key technological ideas and expertise reside in the heads of engineers and scientists, tacit knowledge:
Roger Dassen, the chief financial officer of the Dutch lithography equipment firm ASML, said recently that “a lot of ASML’s technology is not on blueprints. . . It’s in the heads of people. And you don’t need just the blueprints; you need everything surrounding it and the entire supply chain. . . . You’re talking about a decade or more before you could replicate something like this.
Hence, China, has in latter years, tended to attempt to recruit software engineers and others from other countries, especially Taiwan, by offering sometime salaries 500% of the indigenous Chinese salary rates. This approach will no doubt continue (cited Allen 2023).
More generally, China will mobilise its considerable domestic market and its existing competitive semiconductor companies to eliminate reliance on US company suppliers and to push even harder for self-sufficiency, using its five-year plans and accompanying state finance.
As Xi Jinping said in a recent speech:
We must firmly grasp this strategic basis that is demand expansion, make each link—production, distribution, circulation, and consumption—rely more on the domestic market to achieve a virtuous circle, specify the strategic direction of supply-side structural reform, and promote the achievement of dynamic balance between aggregate supply and demand at higher levels (CSIS 2023).
Of course, economic plans do not always come the fruition in the timescale suggested, especially when encountering headwinds (including US sanctions. Certainly, it was anticipated that within the period of the 14th Five Year Plan, 2021 to 2025 that Chinese equipment manufacturers would be likely to have caught up with ASML on developing EUV equipment. They have not, at least not yet. However, in other technology and integrated circuit applications (such as domestic equipment and electric cars) success is being achieved especially when the domestic market pull is strong.
For instance, Huawei recently announced that it had collaborated with other Chinese firms to create new chip design software for chips at the 14 nm node or above. Moreover, Chinese government pressure to “buy Chinese” appears to be extending beyond equipment to the chips themselves. At a recent visit to Xuzhou Construction Machinery Group, Xi Jinping the corporate delegation, “Are the chips in your crane all made locally?”
This comment is in line with the campaign recently launched by the Chinese government to pressure Chinese automakers to use Chinese-made chips. Currently, only 5 percent of the chips in Chinese cars are made in China This is despite the fact that most automotive chips are made at legacy node sizes.
Notwithstanding the considerable barriers placed in the path of China, it has the potential both to continue on its path to sustainable technological development, including across the semiconductor sector, using a variety of strategies, including engaging in measured and proportionate retaliation against companies and countries that ally themselves with the US-led sanctions.
China’s main strength, however, not yet fully or efficiently deployed, is its huge and expanding domestic market. There are signs of a recognition that effective deployment of China’s domestic market over the next five to ten years has now become urgent and essential. It is important to stress that despite the impetus for self-sufficiency and relative autarky, this approach is not one of China’s choosing Nonetheless, it is a battle that China is likely, ultimately, to win.
This latest US initiative on trade sanctions is not about competing with China, it is a blatant multilateral, US-led Western attempt to eliminate China from participation in the transnational international trading order in the crucially important technological, semiconductor sector.
Ultimately, it will not succeed. A country the population size of China and with its current stage of economic and technological development will create its own semiconductor sector ecosystem. However, it may probably set back China by around five years in this endeavour and probably longer for its corporate champions to become competitive with leading- edge Western companies in the sector.
However, China may not necessarily be alone in providing the trade and market dynamics supporting Chinese semiconductor development and the various applications that will utilize chips, from robotics, to electric cars, to health care products. As indicated below China’s integration in Asia-Pacific markets and regional trade agreements will supplement its own domestic market, as will its wider integration across the Belt and Road Initiative.
The G7 should be concerned about actions taken to damage countries outside its membership. Currently it represents around 30% of global GDP, compared with its 60% share at its inception in 1975. It is also the case that the major Asian trade bloc (RCEP) is the largest free trade area in the world. Of Western-oriented nations only Australia and New Zealand are members, because of their geographical position and strong trade links with China and other Asian countries.
China will take steps, both to intensify its efforts to provide state support to its technology companies and probably to take some retaliatory actions. In respect of state aid, given the massive injection of public funds into US private companies under the aegis on the US Inflation Reduction Act, any suggestion that China is unique in pursuing state-capitalism should be viewed as ludicrous.
Although the bulk of China’s effort to continue its drive forward in the semiconductor upstream and downstream technology sectors will be driven within the huge domestic market in China, it is likely to find support for its endeavours within the Global South. Unlike in the increasingly antagonistic West there will be political and political sympathy and economic support for China within the Global South for what appears to be developing as a bifurcated global economic division sought by a US-led West. What is not clear is whether the “political glue” that appears to be holding the EU countries and Japan close to the US, to the neglect of their economic interests.
From a geopolitical standpoint, the suggestion that this US-led initiative is as a reaction to China’s sabotage of the existing international trading order is hypocritical in the extreme. The one country that persistently disrupts the international order when it perceives its political, economic, or security interests are being threatened is the US. Its use of extra-territorial measures in the case of its trade and technology aggression towards China in respect of the semiconductor sector is only the latest in such actions. What is concerning is the apparent willingness of the European nations and the EU to acquiesce in this latest and most egregious example of US behaviour in manipulating the international order to its own advantage, no matter which companies and countries are negatively affected.
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