China has a chip problem. It depends entirely on the United States and U.S. allies for access to advanced commercial semiconductors, which underpin all modern technologies, from smartphones to fighter jets to artificial intelligence. China’s current chip dependence allows the United States and its allies to control the export of advanced chips to Chinese state and private actors whose activities threaten human rights and international security. Chip dependence is also expensive: China currently depends on imports for most of the chips it consumes.
China has therefore prioritized indigenizing advanced semiconductor manufacturing equipment (SME), which chip factories require to make leading-edge chips. But indigenizing advanced SME will be hard since Chinese firms have serious weaknesses in almost all SME sub-sectors, especially photolithography, metrology, and inspection. Meanwhile, the top global SME firms—based in the United States, Japan, and the Netherlands—enjoy wide moats of intellectual property and world-class teams of engineers, making it exceptionally difficult for newcomers to the SME industry to catch up to the leading edge.
But for a country with China’s resources and political will, catching up in SME is not impossible. Whether China manages to close this gap will depend on its access to five technological accelerants:
- Equipment components. Building advanced SME often requires access to a range of complex components, which SME firms often buy from third party suppliers and then assemble into finished SME. Just as chipmakers cannot make chips without access to SME, firms cannot make SME without access to these specialized components (henceforth “SME components”).
- Government subsidies. China will likely provide billions of dollars in subsidies to its SME industry over the next five years. The volume of funding available to Chinese SME firms likely exceeds the fledgling industry’s ability to efficiently absorb that funding.
- Explicit knowledge transfers. Inspection and reverse engineering as well as intellectual property theft will help Chinese firms copy the advances made by top global SME firms.
- Tacit know-how transfers. Approximately 1,100 Chinese nationals currently work at SME firms outside China. These workers return to China at low rates, but the few who do return bring valuable engineering know-how and often secure top jobs.
- Collaboration between Chinese SME firms and chip fabrication facilities (fabs). Refining a product to achieve the high yield and throughput demanded by semiconductor manufacturers takes years and requires extensive testing and feedback from buyers. Chinese SME firms have struggled to find buyers willing to collaborate with them during this refinement process and to bring them revenue to accelerate their growth.
Reducing China’s access to these accelerants will require a significant policy effort, but such an effort may be necessary to sustain China’s chip dependence in the long term. To this end, we recommend the following policies, each aimed at reducing China’s access to one or more of the five accelerants identified above.
The United States should continue screening foreign investments in SME firms and work with allies to harmonize investment screening practices. Harmonized investment screening policies will prevent Chinese firms from strategically acquiring companies possessing sensitive tacit and explicit knowledge and transferring that knowledge back to China.
The United States and its allies should more tightly control the export of technical data to China, but use deemed exports in a more targeted, limited way. Controls on technical data would reduce China’s access to explicit knowledge. However, the United States should apply deemed export controls more sparingly by expanding exemptions and should process licenses more quickly. This would ensure foreign nationals stay in the United States and contribute to U.S. industry, while taking a targeted approach to protecting against technology transfer.
To reduce China’s access to critical components required to build advanced SME, the United States and its allies should impose export controls on these components. Examples include specialized light sources, laser amplifiers, and optics used to build extreme ultraviolet (EUV) and specialized light sources used to build argon fluoride immersion photolithography tools. China is already attempting to indigenize photolithography components, but robust controls would ensure Chinese firms cannot short-circuit this years-long and expensive process by importing these components instead.
The United States and its allies should export control advanced SME itself, especially any SME that China has yet to acquire. These controls would deny China the ability to reverse-engineer SME, an important source of explicit knowledge. Controls on SME would also slow the development of advanced Chinese fabs, weakening China’s semiconductor ecosystem.
The United States should prioritize assessment of SME component chokepoints, their value-add to SME, and vectors of technology transfer. These assessments would reveal additional policy options, including further SME components to target with export controls.
The United States should further study and promote transparency on Chinese government subsidies for SME. If such subsidies are found to be illegal under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, the United States can consider challenging them. At a minimum, the United States and its allies can consider reducing export controls if China reduces its subsidy programs.
The United States and its allies should promote continued SME innovation through investments in R&D and workforce development. For now, leading SME firms based in the United States and allied countries enjoy an incumbency advantage: unlike Chinese SME firms, they have access to critical product feedback and revenues derived from sales to leading global semiconductor fabs. Workforce and R&D investments would help accelerate the pace of SME innovation, allowing U.S. and allied firms to sustain their incumbency advantage in the years ahead.