So what if China has 7nm chips now, there's no Huawei it can make them 'at scale'

Or so says US Commerce Secretary

Updated 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 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 chip-making hardware and software, mainly by banning certain exports to the Middle Kingdom and leaning on suppliers around the world to fall in line.

There are also efforts underway to block vital materials and chemicals needed to make chips getting into the Middle Kingdom.

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 sorts of components.

Huawei's phone, the Mate 60 Pro, uses a domestically developed Kirin 9000S chip conceived by Huawei and 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 and its allies had been battling against.

Regardless of the restrictions against it obtaining advanced manufacturing equipment and related technologies and materials, SMIC figured out how to make 7nm parts, it would appear. The development has spurred the US Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security to initiate an inquiry into the purported chip, and how it was made in spite of American-led export crackdowns on China.

Huawei and SMIC are, for one thing, subject to US export controls, making it in theory hard for those corporations to obtain technology and business from American suppliers – and any other vendors that can be pressured by the US. It may well be that those controls aren't as tight as one would imagine, or that the two organizations have found ways around these limitations.

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 sought to curb China's access to 14nm chips, technology considered to be about a decade 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. ®

Updated to add

For what it's worth, it's claimed by the Financial Times that SMIC used DUV lithography rather than the more advanced EUV to fab Huawei's 7nm chip. America has been battling to keep EUV machines out of SMIC's hands to stop it from making semiconductors with latest-gen process nodes, such as 5nm and 3nm. Intel and TSMC were able to get down to 7nm using DUV before switching to more advanced methods so this all isn't too much of a surprise.

Amid the pressure on China from the United States, the Netherlands is still shipping DUV factory equipment to the end of this year, we're told, so again it's no shock that SMIC used DUV for its 7nm chips. TSMC started production of 7nm memory components in 2016 to give you an idea of how old it is.

Separately, it's reported the Mate 60 Pro's system-on-chip features eight CPU cores, four designed by Arm (seemingly Cortex-A510s) and the other four designed by Huawei to be Arm compatible.

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