By suppressing the industry’s natural bottleneck points, the Biden administration aims to block China from the future of chip technology. Its effects will go far beyond curtailing Chinese military progress, threatening the country’s economic growth and scientific leadership. “We said there are key technology areas in which China should not move,” says Emily Kilcrease, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former US trade official. “And these are the areas that will power future economic growth and development.” Today, scientific progress is often made by running simulations and analyzing large amounts of data, rather than by trial-and-error experiments. Simulations are used to discover new lifesaving drugs, model the future of climate change and explore the behavior of colliding galaxies – as well as the physics of hypersonic missiles and nuclear explosions .
“The guy with the best supercomputer can do the best science,” Jack Dongarra, the founding director of the Innovative Computing Laboratory at the University of Tennessee, told me. Runs a program called Dongarra TOP500, which provides a biennial ranking of the world’s fastest supercomputers. As of June, China has claimed 134 locations, while the US has claimed 150, but the picture is incomplete: around 2020, China’s submissions have been reduced in such a way that Dongara has to avoid attracting unwanted attention. Desire happened. Rumors of new supercomputers leak into scientific papers and research announcements, leading observers to speculate about the true state of the competition and the size of China’s projected lead. “It’s surprising because in 2001 China had no computers on the list,” says Dongra. “Now they’ve grown to the point that they’ve gotten over it.”
Yet beneath China’s strength lies a significant weakness: Nearly all of the chips powering the country’s most advanced projects and institutions are tied to American technology. “The entire industry can function with only American inputs,” says Miller. “Every facility that’s near state-of-the-art has American equipment, American design software, and American intellectual property throughout the process.” Despite the Chinese government’s decades of effort and billions of dollars spent on “indigenous innovation”, the problem remains acute. In 2020, China’s domestic chip producers supplied only 15.9 percent of the country’s total demand. As recently as April, China spent more money on importing semiconductors than on oil.
America completely caught up its power over the global semiconductor market in 2019, when Trump Administration Adds Huawei, a major Chinese telecom maker, on the entity list. Although the listing was clearly a punishment for a criminal violation – Huawei was caught selling sanctioned material to Iran – the strategic benefits became immediately apparent. Without access to US semiconductors, software and other essential supplies, Huawei, the largest telecommunications-equipment maker in the world, was struggling to survive. “The Huawei sanctions immediately lifted the veil,” says Matt Sheehan, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who studies China’s tech ecosystem. “Chinese tech giants are running on chips that are made in the US or have deep American components.”
Export-control legislation was long viewed as a dusty, arcane method, far removed from the actual exercise of American power. But after Huawei, the United States discovered that its primacy in the semiconductor supply chain was a rich source of untapped leverage. The three companies, all based in the US, dominate the market for chip-design software, which is used to organize the billions of transistors that fit on a new chip. The market for advanced chip-manufacturing equipment is similarly concentrated, with only a handful of companies able to claim an effective monopoly on the necessary machines or processes – and nearly all of these companies are American or rely on American components. At every step, the supply chain passes through the US, US treaty allies or Taiwan, all of which operate in a US-dominated ecosystem. “We stumbled into it,” Sheehan says. “We started using these weapons before we really knew How to use them.”