By squeezing on the industry’s natural choke points, the Biden administration aims to block China from the future of chip technology. The effects will go far beyond cutting into Chinese military advancements, threatening the country’s economic growth and scientific leadership too. “We said there are key tech areas that China should not advance in,” says Emily Kilcrease, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former U.S. trade official. “And those happen to be the areas that will power future economic growth and development.” Today, scientific advances are often made by running simulations and analyzing huge amounts of data, rather than through trial-and-error experiments. Simulations are used to discover new lifesaving drugs, to model the future of climate change and to explore the behavior of colliding galaxies — as well as the physics of hypersonic missiles and nuclear explosions.
“The person with the best supercomputer can do the best science,” Jack Dongarra, founding director of the Innovative Computing Laboratory at the University of Tennessee, told me. Dongarra runs a program called the TOP500, which offers a biannual ranking of the fastest supercomputers in the world. As of June, China claims 134 spots, compared with 150 for the U.S. But the picture is incomplete: Around 2020, China’s submissions plummeted in a way that suggested to Dongarra a desire to avoid attracting unwanted attention. Rumors of new supercomputers leak out in scientific papers and research announcements, leaving observers to guess at the true state of the competition — and the size of China’s presumed lead. “It’s striking because in 2001 China had no computers on the list,” Dongarra says. “Now they’ve grown to the point that they dominate it.”
Yet beneath China’s strength is a crucial vulnerability: Nearly all the chips that power the country’s most advanced projects and institutions are inexorably tied to U.S. technology. “The entire industry can only function with U.S. inputs,” Miller says. “In every facility that’s remotely close to the cutting edge, there’s U.S. tools, U.S. design software and U.S. intellectual property throughout the process.” Despite decades of effort by the Chinese government, and tens of billions of dollars spent on “indigenous innovation,” the problem remains acute. In 2020, China’s domestic chip producers supplied just 15.9 percent of the country’s overall demand. As recently as April, China spent more money importing semiconductors than it did oil.
America fully grasped its power over the global semiconductor market in 2019, when the Trump administration added Huawei, a major Chinese telecommunications maker, to the entity list. Though the listing was ostensibly punishment for a criminal violation — Huawei had been caught selling sanctioned materials to Iran — the strategic benefits became immediately obvious. Without access to U.S. semiconductors, software and other essential supplies, Huawei, the largest telecommunications-equipment producer in the world, was left struggling to survive. “The Huawei sanctions immediately pulled back the curtain,” says Matt Sheehan, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who studies China’s tech ecosystem. “Chinese tech giants are running on chips that are made in America or have deep American components.”
Export-control law had long been seen as a dusty, arcane backwater, far removed from the actual exercise of American power. But after Huawei, the United States discovered that its primacy in the semiconductor supply chain was a rich source of untapped leverage. Three firms, all located in the U.S., dominate the market for chip-design software, which is used to arrange the billions of transistors that fit on a new chip. The market for advanced chip-manufacturing tools is similarly concentrated, with a handful of companies able to claim effective monopolies over essential machines or processes — and nearly all of these companies are American or dependent on American components. At every step, the supply chain runs through the U.S., U.S. treaty allies or Taiwan, all of them operating in a U.S.-dominated ecosystem. “We stumbled into it,” Sheehan says. “We started using these weapons before we really knew how to use them.”