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US-China tensions

China chipmakers speed up effort to cut reliance on US supplies

SMIC to conduct production line trial while Yangtze Memory raises localization target

Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation is one of the Chinese chipmakers trying to work more with local equipment suppliers and reduce dependence on U.S. manufacturers.   © Getty Images

TAIPEI -- China's top chipmakers are speeding up efforts to reduce their use of U.S semiconductor equipment as fears mount that Washington will impose further curbs on their operations as part of a tech war, people with knowledge of the plans told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, the country's top contract chipmaker better known as SMIC, and Yangtze Memory Technologies, China's first 3D NAND flash memory maker, are among the companies setting ambitious goals to test homegrown and non-U.S. equipment in their production lines. Several state-backed chipmakers are doing likewise, multiple people familiar with the plans told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Chinese chipmakers have also stockpiled several years worth of inventories of some supplies from the likes of Applied Materials, a big U.S. equipment maker, the sources said.

"It's really geopolitical risks that are pushing Chinese chipmakers to forge a plan B as soon as possible," a source told Nikkei.

SMIC has set an aggressive target to begin trial production for a 40-nanometer chip production line without American equipment before the end of this year, and aims to build more advanced 28-nm chips on the same basis in three years, people with knowledge of the plans told Nikkei.

Yangtze Memory, meanwhile, has raised its targets for using domestically produced chip equipment and materials almost every month since May, sources said. The company now has a goal for 70% of its equipment to come from domestic suppliers, one of the sources said, compared with a current figure of about 30%. It is bringing more local companies into its group of qualified suppliers.

The semiconductor industry, which has strong links to national security, has been at the center of the U.S.-China tech war. Chips empower products from smartphones and autonomous cars to advanced military technologies.

U.S. software and equipment is at the heart of global semiconductor manufacturing, used by Chinese companies as well as market leaders such as Samsung Electronics and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., known as TSMC. Without U.S. equipment most chipmakers would face higher costs and impaired performance.

Beijing's chip self-sufficiency efforts accelerated after the U.S. in May hit Chinese tech champion Huawei Technologies with stricter export controls. Washington banned semiconductor producers from building chips for Huawei if they use American software and tools along their production lines.

As the Trump administration has broadened the scope of its crackdown to other China-owned tech businesses such as WeChat and TikTok, Chinese chipmakers, which rely heavily on American tools for production, sensed an imminent threat of being cut off from U.S. supplies, sources said.

SMIC's shares fell nearly 23% in Hong Kong on Monday after Reuters reported over the weekend that Washington is reportedly considering adding the company to a trade blacklist, alongside Huawei.

SMIC's 40-nm chips, which allow higher tolerances for precision in manufacturing, are still several generations behind the much smaller, cutting-edge output from rivals. TSMC uses 5-nm technology.

While 40-nm chips cannot compete for places inside the latest smartphones, laptops and server processors, they can be used by makers of televisions, surveillance camera chip platforms and image sensors.

The performance of smartphone processor chips built with 28-nm production tech is around seven years behind that of the mobile processors that will go into Apple's 5G iPhones due in the fall, said Su Tzu-yun, director of the Institute for National Defense Security Research in Taipei.

Even before the escalating trade battle between the U.S. and China, Yangtze Memory was an advocate of using indigenous equipment to answer Beijing's call for self-sufficiency.

"The efforts have accelerated in a quite radical way this year," a person familiar with the matter said. "The chipmaker now is all-in to adopt domestically developed machines no matter if they have not yet reached satisfactory performance or could lead to additional costs. But it's still quite a long way to go."

Market watchers say Yangtze Memory has also tried to get a jump on the unfolding geopolitical uncertainties.

"According to industry surveys and feedback from semiconductor equipment vendors, Yangtze Memory anticipated further escalation of the U.S.-China trade war and hence decided to place [equipment] orders earlier than expected," said Donnie Teng, an analyst with Nomura Research.

The company in June ordered machines for next year's expansion, several months earlier than first planned, Teng said.

SMIC and Yangtze Memory did not respond to requests for comments and interviews.

Beijing last month announced more incentives to turbocharge its homegrown chip industry, including a 10-year income tax exemption for selected chipmakers. It is also encouraging chip producers to raise funds by, among other options, listing on markets such as Shanghai's tech-heavy STAR board and Shenzhen's ChiNext.

Nomura's Teng said Huawei, SMIC's largest customer, accounting for 20% of its revenues, is a big force behind the Chinese contract chipmaker's drive to study and use more domestic semiconductor production equipment.

Teng said progress has been slow. For 28-nm production, Chinese equipment can currently cover only 20% of what is required. SMIC also needs Japanese, South Korean and European tool vendors to build a non-U.S. production line, Teng added.

Zhao Haijun, SMIC's co-CEO, confirmed in an earnings call in August that his company is trying to procure chipmaking tools and materials from within China.

"We see many key domestic chip equipment and materials makers have also gone public, and received massive financial support from the local capital market," Zhao said in the earnings call. "We think the future is bright, even though the scale of these companies is still small compared with existing market leaders. What we will do now is work with them and also test these local suppliers, but we don't expect these followers could replace any of the leading suppliers soon."

Three U.S. companies -- Applied Materials, Lam Research and KLA -- along with ASML of Europe and Tokyo Electron of Japan have long dominated the fabrication process for advanced semiconductors.

China's emerging companies, all little-known outside the chip industry, include Naura, Advanced Micro-Fabrication Equipment, Hwatsing, ACM Research, Mattson Technology and Shanghai Precision Measurement Semiconductor Technology.

They specialize in a range of production and testing tools, and many have the support of Beijing's so-called Big Fund, a national funding vehicle for the semiconductor industry.

"Using all non-American chip equipment for the chip production line will definitely affect Chinese chipmakers' product competitiveness, but in the very long run, the market positions of those American companies will eventually be affected as they would no longer become the must-go-to options in years later," Jonah Cheng, chief investment officer at J&J Investment and a veteran tech analyst at UBS, told Nikkei.

Randy Abrams, an analyst with Credit Suisse, suggested China will not veer off its current path. "China's localization efforts are targeted at both improving the country's development and also at avoiding further disruption from the U.S.," he said. "From the U.S. policy side, we will continue to see some resistance to that.

"China certainly hopes to gain more sufficiency. However, the global tech supply chain is so interconnected, so it's very difficult for any country to be 100% self-reliant."

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