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Arm processor technology caught up in US chip war with China

Alibaba reportedly pulled into the fray, plus: world's top chipmaking equipment maker, ASML, pushes back

Chinese companies are being further hit by US-led export controls on advanced chip technology, with reports that the e-commerce giant Alibaba is being denied access to Arm's Neoverse V-series processor designs.

According to reports, Alibaba, which is regarded as China’s answer to Amazon, will not have access to the Neoverse V-series core designs because Arm believes that the US and UK would not approve the export of this technology to the Middle Kingdom.

Alibaba already uses Arm-based chips in servers that power its Alibaba Cloud, which are manufactured for it by T-Head Semiconductor, a wholly owned chipmaking subsidiary of the company.

However, the Financial Times reports that Arm has concluded the US and UK governments would not approve the licensing of its latest Neoverse V series cores because the performance would be considered too high, citing unnamed sources.

This is presumably a reference to the recently introduced US export controls that attempt to block Chinese access to high performance computer chips, which has also seen companies such as Nvidia forced to restrict which products it can sell to China.

We asked Arm to confirm these reports, and clarify which of its products would be affected by the export controls. However, Arm did not directly answer our questions. Instead it sent a statement:

As a global company, Arm is committed to adhering to all applicable export laws and regulations in the jurisdictions in which it operates. For Alibaba and other China partners, we have a process in place to deliver optimized solutions that address their performance requirements and are fully-compliant with the latest export controls.

Alibaba was not immediately available to respond.

The Chinese company had previously revealed plans to power 20 percent of its operations with its home-made Arm-based CPUs by 2025. But earlier this month, The Register reported that Beijing was enlisting companies such as Alibaba to develop home-made RISC-V chips in an attempt to become less reliant on foreign-owned technology.

According to the FT, the export controls cover the Neoverse V2, which was announced back in September and is set to feature in Nvidia’s high-performance Grace processor, as well as the older Neoverse V1 technology, featured in Amazon’s Graviton3 datacenter chip.

It has also been reported that US Commerce Department is set to add over 30 Chinese companies to its Entity List, which would bar them from being able to purchase technology from US suppliers unless they can obtain a special export license giving them explicit permission.

It is claimed that chipmaker Yangtze Memory Technologies (YMTC) is among those due to be added to the list, which may happen as soon as this week.

YMTC was among the companies that were added to the US Commerce Department’s Unverified List in October, when Washington first announced its tough new export controls. Companies on the Entity List are subject to tougher restrictions than those on the Unverified List.

These latest moves come after Beijing this week filed a complaint with the WTO against the US-led export controls, claiming that they are anti-competitive and that they threaten global supply chains.

Netherlands' ASML pushes back

Meanwhile, there is some kickback against the export controls from outside the US. ASML CEO Peter Wennink is reported to have said that his company has already given up enough sales opportunities.

ASML, one of the leading makers of photolithography machines, has already been blocked from selling newer equipment to China that uses extreme ultraviolet (EUV) wavelengths in the chipmaking process.

But in an interview with Dutch publication NRC, Wennink said that chip technology for purely military applications is often 10 to 15 years old, and the equipment to make such chips can still be sold to China.

The most advanced chips for AI might require EUV, but even these are still being sold to China, Wennink claimed. “American chip manufacturers have no problem with China as a customer,” he said.

The Register asked Arm if Arm China had access to the Neoverse IP and might be able to licence that to companies like Alibaba. We'll update if we receive an answer. ®

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