3 min

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo is not impressed with China’s chip advances. The Huawei Mate 60 chip, released last September, seemed to be the result of a remarkable breakthrough in China’s semiconductor industry. Nothing could be further from the truth, she believes.

Huawei launched the Kirin 9000S, the Mate 60 smartphone’s System-on-a-Chip (SoC) intended for the Chinese market, in early September 2023. The launch date was cleverly chosen as it coincided with Raimondo’s state visit to China. As she sought to improve trade relations with Beijing, Chinese social media was littered with edited photos in which the U.S. minister appeared to be touting the brand-new Mate 60.

Tip: ‘Chinese chip technology breakthrough through ASML technology’

More importantly, the Huawei chip seemed considerably more advanced than the U.S. government had thought possible. Fueled by concerns about Russian use of semiconductors for military purposes in the war in Ukraine, the U.S. has further tightened its export restrictions. China, favourable to Russia, was already being targeted by sanctions over espionage concerns, particularly related to 5G infrastructure. At any rate, the goal from the US is to keep Chinese semiconductor technology about five years behind the Western equivalent. This is still succeeding, Raimondo believes.

Huawei still ‘years behind’

In an interview with 60 Minutes by US broadcaster CBS, Raimondo dismisses some concerns about the Chinese chip advance. The Kirin 9000S “is not nearly as good” as what the U.S. has available. “We’ve out-innovated China,” Raimondo said. Interviewer Lesley Stahl counters that Taiwan, not America, accounts for 90 percent of advanced chip production in the form of TSMC. “Fair,” the trade minister replied.

The SoC is manufactured by China’s SMIC (Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation). This company has DUV lithography machines, not ASML’s newer EUV equipment which is critical for the latest chips. The older machines haven’t allowed chips to be made with a 7 nanometer chip process. SMIC did succeed, albeit with significant limitations.

Former VP of TSMC Liang Mong Song already spoke to DigiTimes Asia about the Huawei SoC. He noted that while SMIC has been able to bring older devices up to 7nm, it has done so at the expense of manufacturing capacity. The yield rate, the percentage of viable chips after production, would be unbearably low on such an advanced process using tools that are effectively out of date. In addition, the Huawei chip gets way too hot, partly due to an overcrowded topology. As a result, due to forced downclocks, the theoretical results of the Kirin 9000S are not achieved in practice.

In short, although not too detailed, Raimondo’s claim is valid. If we include the correction that Taiwan currently provides advanced chip production at scale (courtesy of ASML machines), America is indeed significantly better off than China. If the latter manages to produce 7nm semiconductors at scale, it will actually be in the same position as TSMC was all the way back in 2018. That is not yet the case.

Also read: Newest ASML machine at Intel is ready to go, with plenty of R&D ahead