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US chipmaker GlobalFoundries asks China to probe TSMC

Already under EU investigation, Taiwan company now accused of unfair competition

TAIPEI -- GlobalFoundries, the second-largest contract chipmaker in the world, has asked Chinese regulators to probe market leader Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. for violating antitrust laws, said two industry sources familiar with the matter.

GlobalFoundries told China's National Development and Reform Commission that TSMC adopted unfair practices to discourage customers from placing orders with others, said a source. GlobalFoundries complained that such moves negatively affected its business and the industry, the source said.

Without referring directly to any complaint, TSMC Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Lora Ho wrote in an email to the Nikkei Asian Review on Wednesday: "It is common practice for a complainant alleging antitrust violation to petition the various antitrust regulators in major markets. We will cooperate fully should there be inquiries or requests from regulators regarding any investigation."

Ho wrote that the vigorous competition had benefitted customers and the industry as a whole and that "TSMC therefore believes there is no anticompetition concern in such a highly competitive industry."  

GlobalFoundries told Nikkei that it could not comment directly on regulatory action but a spokesperson wrote in an email: "If a competitor (like TSMC) continues to engage in patterns of what we believe is illegal behavior that harms competition, we will let the appropriate regulatory authorities know."

NDRC was not immediately available for comment.

TSMC is the world's largest contract chipmaker with a 55.9% market share. It manufactures chips for companies like Apple, Qualcomm and Nvidia, which do not operate costly plants themselves, according to Topology Research Institute of Taipei-based Trendforce.

GlobalFoundries of the U.S., United Microelectronics Corp. of Taiwan and China's Semiconductor Manufacturing International are also notable players in the foundry sector, controlling 9.4%, 8.5% and 5.4% of market share respectively.

GlobalFoundries is struggling to stay afloat amid escalating competition. Big players such as Samsung Electronics and Intel that previously made chips mostly for their own use are starting to manufacture for others in their search for new sources of growth.

Samsung, already the biggest memory chip provider in the world, said recently it was aiming to displace GlobalFoundries as the No. 2 player in the contract chipmaking segment and to subsequently challenge TSMC.

TSMC has sent a person friendly with Beijing to contact the NDRC to learn more about the proceedings, one of the sources said. It is still unclear if the commission will put the accusations on file, said the source.

The Chinese commission is the country's top economic planner, and is also responsible for ensuring a level playing field in terms of the pricing of products. The State Administration for Industry and Commerce is in charge of clamping down on monopolistic practices in all other areas, while the Ministry of Commerce oversees antitrust reviews in mergers and acquisitions.

This is not the first time that GlobalFoundries had taken complaints about rivals to government agencies. In the second half of 2017, it made a similar complaint to the European Commission, accusing TSMC of unfairly using rebates and even penalties to prevent customers from defecting to other suppliers, Reuters first reported last September.

TSMC's Ho told reporters in October last year that the EC did contact her company for more information and TSMC was cooperating fully. "It is our understanding that the preceding is still in its preliminary stage. So it's premature to comment or predict how the case will proceed," Ho said then.

China is the fastest-growing market for chip manufacturers. TSMC's first 12-inch advanced chip plant, built at a cost of $3 billion in the Chinese city of Nanjing, will start production this May. Most of the company's production sites are in Taiwan.

Some 11% of the company's revenue of 977.45 billion new Taiwan dollars ($32.11 billion) came from China in 2017, up from 9% in 2016.

GlobalFoundries is also building a chip facility with financing from the local government in the Chinese city of Chengdu that is set to begin production by the end of this year. It has manufacturing sites in Singapore, New York State in the U.S. and Dresden in Germany. The privately held company is controlled by Mubadala Investment, an Abu Dhabi state-owned fund.

TSMC's key customers also include NXP, Broadcom, Qualcomm, AMD, MediaTek and Xilinx, among roughly 450 clients worldwide. GlobalFoundries relies mainly on AMD and on business from many of TSMC's customers, excluding Apple and Nvidia.

Qualcomm, the world's biggest mobile chip provider, was fined $975 million in 2015 by the NDRC for breaching antitrust laws in its licensing practices. Samsung was contacted by the commission last year for hiking the prices of dynamic random access memory chips, according to an unconfirmed report in China's 21st Century Business Herald.

Companies can be fined as much as 10% of their global revenue for breaching EU antitrust rules. Google was hit with a 2.42 billion euro ($3 billion) fine last year for favoring its own shopping service in its search engine and its own smartphone operation system over others. Qualcomm was also hammered with a fine of 997 million euros this January for abusing its dominance to keep its position as Apple's sole supplier for five years.

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