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US-China tensions

US targets supercomputers in Biden's first move against Chinese tech

Washington sees weapons threat in sector key to Beijing's tech self-reliance

PALO ALTO, U.S.-- The Biden administration took its first trade action against China on Thursday, adding seven Chinese supercomputing developers to an export blacklist for assisting Chinese military efforts in a move that will likely further escalate frosty tensions between the world's two largest economies.

The U.S. Commerce Department said the seven added to the Entity List were "involved with building supercomputers used by China's military actors, its destabilizing military modernization efforts, and/or weapons of mass destruction programs."

The sanctioned groups are leading China's supercomputing development and a key players in Beijing's plan for chip self-sufficiency.

The newly blacklisted entities are Tianjin Phytium Information Technology, Shanghai High-Performance Integrated Circuit Design Center, Sunway Microelectronics, the National Supercomputing Center Jinan, the National Supercomputing Center Shenzhen, the National Supercomputing Center Wuxi, and the National Supercomputing Center Zhengzhou.

Chinese supercomputers have been taking more top spots in the U.S.-European led TOP500 project, which ranks supercomputer speed twice a year. Most of those machines are developed or operated by the seven entities now on the U.S. trade blacklist.

Military vehicles carrying hypersonic missiles DF-17 drive past Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2019.    © Reuters

In the November 2020 ranking, 214 Chinese supercomputers made it to the top 500 list, the most for any country and almost double the 113 from the U.S.

"Supercomputing capabilities are vital for the development of many -- perhaps almost all -- modern weapons and national security systems, such as nuclear weapons and hypersonic weapons," Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in a statement.

"The Department of Commerce will use the full extent of its authorities to prevent China from leveraging U.S. technologies to support these destabilizing military modernization efforts," she added.

Sunway TaihuLight supercomputer, which was ranked as the fourth-fastest computer in the world in the most recent top 500 list, is powered by core processors developed by Sunway Microelectronics and is currently operated by National Supercomputing Center Wuxi.

Tianjin Phytium Information Technology has developed FeiTeng CPU, a series of core computing units regarded as one of the most likely replacements to U. S-made Intel and British-made Arm chips in China.

The Thursday blacklist decision requires the seven entities to obtain licenses to access American technologies, including chip infrastructures designed by Intel and other U.S. chipmakers, and other software and hardware for supercomputer designs.

Unlike Huawei ban imposed under then-President Donald Trump, however, they would still be able to use Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. and other international chip manufacturers to make supercomputer chips.

This is not the first time the Commerce Department's Entity List has been used against China's supercomputer sector. In 2019, the Trump administration blacklisted Sugon, a leading Chinese player in the field.

China has been ramping up efforts to be less reliant on American chips since the Huawei ban in 2019. One of Beijing's goals in its "Made in China 2025" plan is to grow the country's chip industry to achieve a self-sufficiency rate of 40% by 2020, increasing to 70% by 2025

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