The trade ban that wasn't: US allows 94% of restricted tech exports to China anyway

谢谢 美国!

US Commerce Department can make all the noise it wants about limiting tech exports to China, but it is reportedly doing little to actual stem the flow of components and equipment.

The Wall Street Journal said on Tuesday that efforts by Uncle Sam to prevent key technologies from falling into the hands of rogue foreign powers — China in particular – may not be having the intended effect. In all, 2,652 export licenses for restricted tech to China were granted by the Commerce Dept in 2020, 94 percent of the total requested.

The newspaper reported that of the $125 billion in exports to China in 2020, less than half a percent were subject to licensing requirements, and of those that did, the Commerce Dept approved the overwhelming majority of requests.

The WSJ alleges that US policy intended to limit the export of technologies deemed a national security risk aren’t being effectively enforced, and America continues to ship a wide array of semiconductor, aerospace, and AI/ML tech to China.

America has taken an increasingly nationalist approach to export control over the past two administrations in a rather explicit bid to deny China access to advanced chipmaking tech. In public at least.

The Commerce Department’s latest bans, announced last week, prevent the unlicensed export of ultra-wide bandgap semiconductor materials, electronic computer-aided design (ECAD) technology, and pressure gain combustion (PGC) technology. These technologies have applications in the production of next-gen semiconductor tech including those required to manufacturer chips based on 3nm process tech.

The ban is only the latest in a series of measures aimed at stifling Chinese chip development, which have only ramped up in the lead up to the passage of the CHIPS Act funding earlier this month.

In early July, the US reportedly began a pressure campaign in the hopes of convincing the Netherlands to block Dutch semiconductor equipment maker ASML from selling deep ultraviolet (DUV) lithography tech to China.

DUV is previous-gen manufacturing tech, and has been superseded in recent years by extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography used to produce 7nm and smaller process nodes. America has also tried to stop the flow of EUV equipment into China as well as DUV machines.

There remains significant demand for DUV equipment in China, let alone EUV. A BusinessKorea report from the time indicates SMIC, China’s largest state-based foundry operator, was planning to invest $11 billion to grow its DUV capacity by 2023.

Meanwhile, the US is reportedly weighing banning the export of US-made equipment and intellectual property needed to produce flash memory chips with greater than 128 layers in China.

However, recent developments have called the efficacy of these measures into question.

Late last month TechInsights, a US-based semiconductor analysis firm, reported that SMIC had not only managed to produce chips based on a 7nm process node, but had been manufacturing it in volume since last year. We note that some experts believe SMIC's yields may be low at this stage. The technology also appears to be a copy of a design used by foundry giant TSMC. Until recently, it was believed that SMIC's most advanced process tech topped out at 14nm.

Whether or not a failure by the Commerce Department to effectively enforce exports bans are to blame for SMIC’s recent advancements remains unclear.

The Register reached out to the Commerce Department for comment; we’ll let you know what we hear back. ®

PS: It was reported last week by former vulture Gareth Corfield that certain components made by Chinese chip maker Nexperia – which is trying to buy Newport Wafer Fab in the UK – found their way into at least one Russian cruise missile launched at Ukraine. Nexperia insisted its semiconductors are not intended for military use, and it has no customers in Russia. We're led to believe the Kremlin potentially obtained the parts via its network of front companies and other channels.

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