Chips Make It Tough for the U.S. to Quit China

on Jul9
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In May, Micron Technologies, the Idaho chipmaker, suffered a serious blow as part of the U.S.-China technology war. The Chinese government barred companies that handle crucial information from buying Micron’s chips, saying the company had failed a cybersecurity review.

Micron said the change could destroy roughly an eighth of its global revenue. Yet in June, the chipmaker announced that it would increase its investments in China — adding $600 million to expand a chip packaging facility in the Chinese city of Xian.

“This investment project demonstrates Micron’s unwavering commitment to its China business and team,” an announcement posted on the company’s Chinese social media account said.

Global semiconductor companies are finding themselves in an extremely tricky position as they try to straddle a growing rift between the United States and China. The semiconductor industry has become ground zero for the technology rivalry between Washington and Beijing, with new restrictions and punitive measures imposed by both sides.

U.S. officials say American products have fed into Chinese military and surveillance programs that run counter to the national security interest of the United States. They have imposed increasingly tough restrictions on the kind of chips and chip-making equipment that can be sent to China, and are offering new incentives, including grants and tax credits, for chipmakers who choose to build new operations in the United States.

But factories can take years to construct, and corporate ties between the countries remain strong. China is a major market for chips, since it is home to many factories that make chip-rich products, including smartphones, dishwashers, cars and computers, that are both exported around the world and purchased by consumers in China.

Overall, China accounts for roughly a third of global semiconductor sales. But for some chipmakers, the country accounts for 60 percent or 70 percent of their revenue. Even when chips are manufactured in the United States, they are often sent to China for assembly and testing.

“We can’t just flip a switch and say all of sudden you have to take everything out of China,” said Emily S. Weinstein, a research fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

The industry’s reliance on China highlights how a close — but extremely contentious — economic relationship between Washington and Beijing is posing challenges for both sides.

Those tensions were reflected during Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen’s visit to Beijing this week, where she tried to walk a fine line by faulting some of China’s practices while insisting the United States was not looking to sever ties with the country.

Ms. Yellen criticized punitive measures China has recently taken against foreign firms, including limiting the export of some minerals used in chip making, and suggested that such actions were why the Biden administration was trying to make U.S. manufacturers less reliant on China. But she also affirmed the U.S.-China relationship as strategic and important.

“I have made clear that the United States does not seek a wholesale separation of our economies,” Ms. Yellen said during a roundtable with U.S. companies operating in China. “We seek to diversify, not to decouple. A decoupling of the world’s two largest economies would be destabilizing for the global economy, and it would be virtually impossible to undertake.”

The Biden administration is poised to begin investing heavily in American semiconductor manufacturing to lure factories out of China. Later this year, the Commerce Department is expected to begin handing out funds to help companies build U.S. chip facilities. That money will come with strings: Firms that take funding must refrain from expanding high-tech manufacturing facilities in China.

The administration is also weighing further curbs on the chips that can be sent to China, as part of a push to expand and finalize sweeping restrictions it issued last October.

John Neuffer, the president of the Semiconductor Industry Association, which represents the chip industry, said in a statement that the ongoing escalation of controls posed a significant risk to the global competitiveness of the U.S. industry.

“China is the world’s largest market for semiconductors, and our companies simply need to do business there to continue to grow, innovate and stay ahead of global competitors,” he said. “We urge solutions that protect national security, avoid inadvertent and lasting damage to the chip industry, and avert future escalations.”

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