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So what if China has 7nm chips now, there’s no Huawei it can do that ‘at scale’

Further escalating the rivalry between the US and China, America’s Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo earlier today voiced open dismay over Huawei putting out a smartphone powered by a sophisticated 7nm homegrown processor during her visit to the Middle Kingdom.

Raimondo insisted the US administration is utilizing every available resource to thwart or slow down China’s technological advancements, such as cutting the nation off from the latest American chip-making hardware and software, which could potentially have adverse implications for the States. It’s one thing to stop a rival country from making or obtaining competing, top-tier components, it’s another to cut off sales to your own nation’s businesses.

Her comments came amid a congressional hearing held on Tuesday, during which she said China could probably not produce the advanced smartphone processor “at scale.” That may be true, and the assertion may also be a face-saving effort given the lengths the United States is going to stop China manufacturing these very components.

Huawei’s phone, the Mate 60 Pro, uses a domestically developed Kirin 9000S chip fabricated by China’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp, or SMIC. This chip, said to be fabbed using a 7nm process, would indicate China is making strides in improving its domestic chip production ecosystem. Up until now, SMIC was known for making 14nm parts at best; now, judging from a tear-down study carried out by TechInsights for Bloomberg of the Mate 60 Pro, it appears China can roll out 7nm components, an achievement Uncle Sam has been battling against.

Either SMIC figured out how to make 7nm parts all by itself; it somehow got hold of foreign tech to do it; or it modified previous-gen factory equipment to achieve 7nm fabrication. The development has spurred the US Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security to initiate an inquiry into the purported 7nm chip, and how or if it was made using American technology.

Huawei and SMIC are subject to US export controls, making it in theory hard for those corporations to obtain technology and other business from American suppliers; it may be that those controls aren’t as tight as one would imagine.

Bloomberg also reported that Raimondo was “upset” at the release of the phone during her visit to Asia.

Raimondo refrained from commenting on any ongoing sanctions-busting investigations, and said her department remains vigilant and prepared to examine any potential breach of US export controls. This promise came in the wake of concerns raised by a faction of Republican lawmakers, spearheaded by Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX), who urged for tougher chip tech restrictions, critiquing the existing sanctions as inadequate.

This situation raises critical questions regarding the effectiveness of the US-led global strategy to limit China’s access to advanced technology, amid worries that such access might amplify the Middle Kingdom’s military and commercial prowess.

The Biden administration had previously instituted export controls to curb China’s access to 14nm chips, technology considered to be nearly eight years behind today’s cutting-edge process nodes. This policy led to the blacklisting of both Huawei and SMIC by the US government.

Despite the hurdles, Huawei shows no signs of slowing down, with plans apparently underway to manufacture 15 million smartphones powered by its proprietary Kirin chips in 2023, a figure projected to rise to 70 million by 2024, as per informed guesswork from analysts Jeff Pu and Anson Tong from Haitong International Securities.

Although these numbers are dwarfed by the volume of chips produced by global leader TSMC for Apple and others, Huawei’s collaboration with SMIC indicates a rapid expansion in its chip production capacity, thereby potentially altering the dynamics of the global semiconductor landscape. ®

source: The Register