How China can transform from passive to active amid US chip curbs
Published: Jul 18, 2023 09:59 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/Global Times

Illustration: Chen Xia/Global Times

On Monday, executives from the three major chip giants in the US - Intel, Qualcomm, and Nvidia - met with US officials, including Antony Blinken, to voice their opposition to the Biden administration's plan of imposing further restrictions on chip sales to Chinese companies and investments in China. The Semiconductor Industry Association also released a similar statement, opposing the exclusion of US semiconductor companies from the Chinese market.

First of all, we mustn't believe that the appeals of these companies and industry associations will collectively change the determination of US political elites to stifle China's progress. These US elites are very fearful of China's rapid development, and they see "chip chokehold" as a new discovery and a successful tactic formed under US leadership and with the cooperation of allies. 

Currently, the chip industry is the most complex technology in human history, with only a few companies being at the forefront. They are mainly from the Netherlands, Taiwan island, South Korea, and Japan, most of which are in the Western Pacific. These countries and regions are heavily influenced by the US. Although these companies have their own expertise, they still use some American technologies in their products. Therefore, Washington quickly persuaded them to form an alliance to collectively prevent the Chinese mainland from obtaining chips and manufacturing technology. Washington is proud of this and wants to continuously tighten the noose on China.

The New York Times directly titled an article "'An Act of War': Inside America's Silicon Blockade Against China, " in which an American AI expert, Gregory Allen, publicly claimed that this is an act of war against China. He further stated that there are two dates that will echo in history from 2022: The first is February 24, when the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out, and the second is October 7, when the US imposed a sweeping set of export controls on selling microchips to China. 

China must abandon its illusions and launch a challenging and effective counterattack. We already have the capability to produce 28nm chips, and we can use "small chip" technology to assemble small semiconductors into a more powerful "brain," exploring 14nm or even 7nm. Additionally, China is the world's largest commercial market for commodity semiconductors. Last year, semiconductor procurement in China amounted to $180 billion, surpassing one-third of the global total. In the past, China had been faced with the choice between independent innovation and external purchases. Due to the high returns from external purchases, it is easy for it to become the overwhelming choice over independent research and development. However, now the US is gradually blocking the option of external purchases, and China has no strategic choice but to independently innovate, which in turn puts tremendous pressure on American companies.

Scientists generally expect that, although China may take some detours, such as recently apprehending several company leaders who fraudulently obtained subsidies from national semiconductor policies, China has the ability to gradually overcome the chip difficulties. And we will form our own breakthroughs and industrial chain, which is expected to put quite a lot of pressure on US companies. If domestic firms acquire half of China's $180 billion per year in chip acquisitions, this would provide a significant boost for the industry as a whole and help it advance steadily.

The New York Times refers to the battle on chips as a bet by Washington. "If the controls are successful, they could handicap China for a generation; if they fail, they may backfire spectacularly, hastening the very future the United States is trying desperately to avoid," it argued. Whether it is a war or a game, when the future is uncertain, what US companies hope for most of all is that they can sell simplified versions of high-end chips to China, so that the option of external purchases by China continues to exist and remains attractive. This can not only maintain the interests of the US companies, enabling them to obtain sufficient funds to develop more advanced technologies, but also disrupt China's plans for independent innovation.

This idea is entirely based on their own commercial interests and also has a certain political and national strategic appeal. Hence, there is no shortage of supporters within the US government. US Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen seems to be one of them, as she has repeatedly stated that the US' restrictions on China will not "fundamentally" hurt China, but will only be "narrowly targeted." The US will balance its strict suppression on China from the perspective of maintaining its technological hegemony, while also leaving some room for China, in order to undermine China's determination to counterattack in terms of independent innovation. 

China needs to use this mentality of the US to its advantage. On the one hand, China should continue to purchase US chips to maintain its economic fundamentals, and on the other hand, it should firmly support the development of domestic semiconductor companies from both financial and market perspectives. If China were to continue relying on exploiting the gaps in US chip policies in the long term, akin to a dependency on opium, it would only serve to weaken China further as it becomes increasingly addicted. China's market is extremely vast, and its innovation capabilities are generally improving and expanding. Although the chip industry is highly advanced, if there is one country that can win this counterattack, it is China. As long as we resolutely continue on the path of independent innovation, this road will definitely become wider. Various breakthroughs and turning points that are unimaginable today may soon occur.

The author is a Global Times commentator. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn