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Trade war

US expands China blacklist to supercomputers and AMD partners

Two sides battle over next-gen machines vital to nuclear, space and biotech

AMD was not considering new technology transfers to its Chinese partner, CEO Lisa Su told the Nikkei Asian Review in May.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- The U.S. Department of Commerce on Friday added five Chinese entities -- including supercomputer manufacturer Sugon and two Chinese joint ventures with American semiconductor company AMD -- to its export-ban list, broadening restrictions on U.S. high-tech exports to China.

State-backed Sugon, who supplies to the Chinese government, as well as the country's defense and energy sectors, is one of the world's leading players in supercomputers. The Shanghai-listed company's products are used in data centers around the country as China advances its cloud computing and artificial intelligence ambitions.

The U.S. and China are in a tight race to develop the next generation of supercomputers -- so-called "exascale" -- capable of doing a quintillion calculations per second. A prototype of such a Chinese computer, Tianhe-3, has been tested by dozens of institutions to assist R&D in nuclear reactors, spaceflight and biotechnology, among other purposes, the Chinese government revealed in January.

In March, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a $500 million funding plan to build Aurora, the country's first exascale computer, by 2021.

New additions to the Commerce Department's so-called Entity List also include Sugon-controlled Tianjin Haiguang Advanced Technology Investment and two of its joint ventures with AMD, according to records added to the Federal Register.

Companies on the Entity List are barred from receiving American technology exports without U.S. government approval on the basis on national security concerns. The expansion of the list comes days before a planned meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Japan.

The two AMD joint ventures, HMC and Hygon were founded in 2016 in a $293 million licensing agreement to deliver x86 CPU processors to the Chinese market.

Based on AMD's x86 architecture, Hygon has already developed a new processor, Dhyana, which hit the assembly line last year. The two companies' partnership with AMD has been widely viewed as a significant win for China in securing a piece of crucial semiconductor intellectual property as the country struggles to develop its own server CPUs.

The new Entity List additions mean that AMD, which, alongside Intel, enjoys a near monopoly over the x86 architecture, will have to stop supplying technology to these joint ventures.

"AMD will comply with the regulations governing that list, just as we have complied with U.S. laws to date," said AMD in an emailed statement to the Nikkei Asian Review. "We are reviewing the specifics of the order to determine next steps related to our joint ventures with [Tianjin Haiguang] in China."

AMD told Nikkei in May it was not planning on any new technology transfers to its Chinese partner.

"We did the initial technology transfer at that point ... That one with the joint venture is a single-generation technology license and there are no additional technology licenses," said AMD's chief executive Lisa Su on the sidelines of the Computex tech expo and trade show in Taipei last month.

Last month, Washington added Huawei Technologies to the Entity List, prompting companies from U.K.-based chipmaker Arm Holdings to Google parent Alphabet to suspend business with the Chinese tech giant. Following the ban, the Department of Commerce issued a 90-day general license to ease restrictions on companies' existing business with Huawei. The temporary license expires in August.

Despite having stockpiled supplies 12 months ahead of the ban, Huawei revealed this week a $30 billion cut to its 2020 revenue forecast due to the U.S. action. 

The fifth entity added to the list Friday was the Wuxi Jiangnan Institute of Computing Technology.

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