New US export controls on technologies for the production of advanced chips and gas turbine engines, which took effect on Monday, have set up an imposing roadblock that prevents China from achieving its semiconductor
ambitions, according to analysts.
The Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), an agency under the US Department of Commerce, last Friday announced the export controls on grounds of national security. The four restricted technologies are among the items covered by the multilateral 1996 Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies, in which China is not a member.
Three of the four restricted technologies include electronic computer-aided design software, which is used for developing next-generation chips with gate-all-around (GAA) field-effect transistor structure, and two substrates of so-called ultra-wide bandgap semiconductors – gallium oxide and diamond – that operate at much higher voltages, frequencies and temperatures than conventional chip materials like silicon.
While China is not singled out in the latest US export controls, analysts said the restrictions clearly target the world’s second-largest economy.
“The US is targeting the future,” said Shang Manjun, an analyst with Shanghai-based semiconductor consulting firm ICwise. She described the export restriction on software used for designing advanced chips as “a trump card” that Washington has not used before.
The US tech export controls mark an escalation of Washington’s efforts to boost America’s hi-tech advantage over China, just days after US President Joe Biden signed into law the Chips and Science Act
that earmarks nearly US$53 billion in semiconductor manufacturing incentives.
The export ban on gallium oxide and diamond, for example, is a means to prevent use of these materials in chips for military applications, according to the BIS.
The new export restrictions rang alarm bells among Chinese semiconductor market insiders because the domestic chip industry relies on advanced US electronic design automation (EDA) software, such as those supplied to China by Cadence Design Systems, Synopsys and Mentor Graphics. Chinese software providers, like Empyrean Technology
, are still trying to catch up on what those US firms provide.
Despite the long shadow cast by the latest US export controls, ICwise analyst Shang said it remains unlikely that US suppliers would immediately cease providing EDA software to Chinese chip design firms.
Semiconductor development in China has not advanced to a level that demands design software for chips with complex GAA transistor structure. Still, such software would be needed once China reaches 3-nanometre process in semiconductor manufacturing, according to a Chinese EDA software company executive, who declined to be identified because he is not allowed to speak to media.
The executive indicated that companies like Empyrean are at least one or two generations behind the major US suppliers.
, meanwhile, said in June that it had started initial production of its 3nm process node using GAA transistor architecture. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co
, the world’s largest contract chip maker, also has GAA on its technology road map for processes below 5nm. US chip giant Intel is likely to start GAA production between 2024 and 2025.
The US tech export restrictions mark an escalation of Washington’s efforts to boost America’s hi-tech advantage over China.