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Biden administration clamps down on China’s access to chip technology


A semiconductor factory in Nantong, China. New limits on sales of semiconductor technology aim to slow the progress of Chinese military programs.

By Ana Swanson


The Biden administration late last week announced sweeping new limits on the sale of semiconductor technology to China, a step aimed at crippling Beijing’s access to critical technologies that are needed for everything from supercomputing to guiding weapons.


The moves are the clearest sign yet that a dangerous standoff between the world’s two major superpowers is increasingly playing out in the technological sphere, with the U.S. trying to establish a stranglehold on advanced computing and semiconductor technology essential to China’s military and economic ambitions.


The package of restrictions, which was released by the Commerce Department, is designed in large part to slow the progress of Chinese military programs, which use supercomputing to model nuclear blasts, guide hypersonic weapons and establish advanced networks for surveilling dissidents and minorities, among other activities.


Alan Estevez, undersecretary of commerce for industry and security, said his bureau was working to prevent China’s military, intelligence and security services from acquiring sensitive technologies with military applications.


“The threat environment is always changing, and we are updating our policies today to make sure we’re addressing the challenges posed by the PRC while we continue our outreach and coordination with allies and partners,” he said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.


Companies will no longer be allowed to supply advanced computing chips, chipmaking equipment and other products to China unless they receive a special license. Most of those licenses will be denied, though certain shipments to facilities operated by U.S. companies or allied countries will be evaluated case by case, a senior administration official said in a briefing Thursday.


It remains to be seen whether the Chinese government will take action in response. Samm Sacks, a senior fellow at Yale Law School who studies technology policy in China, said the new rules could push Beijing to impose restrictions on American companies or firms from other countries that comply with U.S. rules but still want to maintain operations in China.


“The question is: Would this new package cross a red line to trigger a response that we haven’t seen before?” she said. “A lot of people are anticipating it will. I think we’ll have to wait and see.”


The measures come at a particularly sensitive moment for Beijing. Chinese leaders will hold a major political meeting beginning Oct. 16, where leader Xi Jinping is expected to secure a third leadership term, becoming the country’s longest-ruling leader since Mao Zedong.


Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said the United States was trying “to use its technological prowess as an advantage to hobble and suppress the development of emerging markets and developing countries.”


“The U.S. probably hopes that China and the rest of the developing world will forever stay at the lower end of the industrial chain,” he added.


The Chinese government has invested heavily in building up its semiconductor industry, but it still lags behind the United States, Taiwan and South Korea in its ability to produce the most advanced chips. In other fields, such as artificial intelligence, China is no longer significantly behind the United States, but those technologies mostly rely on advanced chips that are designed or fabricated by non-Chinese firms.


New limits on sales of chipmaking equipment are also expected to clamp down on the operations of China’s homegrown chipmakers, including Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp., Yangtze Memory Technologies Co. and ChangXin Memory Technologies.


The effect of the restrictions will hinge on how the policy is implemented. For most of the measures, the Commerce Department has the discretion to grant companies special licenses to continue selling the restricted products to China, though it said most would be denied.


Some Republican lawmakers and China hawks have criticized the department for being too willing to issue such licenses, allowing U.S. companies to continue selling sensitive technology to China even when national security may be at stake.


With its vast ecosystem of factories, China continues to be a massive and lucrative market for U.S. chip exports. The tiny technologies are crucial to the smartphones, laptops, coffee makers, cars and other goods that Chinese factories pump out for domestic consumption and export to the world.


Many U.S. companies have long argued that their sales to China are an important source of revenue that allows them to reinvest in research and development and retain a competitive edge.


But doing business with China has become much more fraught in the last few years, as the tensions between the United States and China have morphed into a cold war competition. The Chinese government has sought to blur the line between its defense sector and private industry, drawing on Chinese firms that specialize in fields including artificial intelligence, big data, aerospace technologies and quantum computing to fuel the country’s military modernization.


Chinese military drills aimed at intimidating Taiwan and China’s alignment with Moscow following the Russian invasion of Ukraine have strengthened the case for technology regulation.


Still, industry executives and some analysts argue that cutting China off from foreign chips will accelerate Beijing’s push to develop them itself and cause U.S. companies to lose out to foreign competitors, unless other countries also impose similar restrictions.


The Semiconductor Industry Association said Friday that it was assessing the effect of the export controls on the industry and working with companies to ensure compliance.

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