Friday, 31 July 2020 10:57

Huawei obsession will cause serious damage to US semiconductor industry: expert Featured

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Huawei obsession will cause serious damage to US semiconductor industry: expert Image by Republica from Pixabay

The US obsession with Chinese telecommunications equipment vendor Huawei Technologies may be well-intentioned, but could end up seriously harming the country's economy and national security, a senior adviser and trustee chair in Chinese Business and Economics at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, says, in an article written as a brief for the Centre and sent to subscribers of The China Wire website in its weekly email titled "What we're reading this week".

In the article, very appropriately headlined Washington's China Policy has lost its Wei, Scott Kennedy said the campaign against Huawei threatened an industry which was the bedrock of the US economy: the semiconductor industry.

"The campaign to isolate Huawei and the greater technology decoupling enterprise threatens this historic success and accelerates China’s technological independence," he wrote.

"Decoupling would also harm the United States’ military preparedness and reduce the costs of Chinese aggression, most importantly, with respect to Taiwan."

Rather than the policy it had adopted, Kennedy said the US needed a policy he called principled inter-dependence to address the risks posed by Huawei and Beijing's high-tech drive, while also continuing to benefit from being part of a dynamic global economy.

"This approach does not require the United States to trust Huawei or China, but it does depend on Washington having greater confidence in itself and working more effectively with friends and allies," he said.

For a number of years now, in fact since 2012 when a 66-page Congressional report on Huawei painted the company as not doing business "the American way", the US administration has been campaigning to have Huawei equipment removed from its networks.

There is plenty of such equipment as it was used liberally during the rollout of 3G and 4G networks in the US, especially in rural areas where Huawei's pricing and attention to getting things working properly before leaving endeared the company to rural network authorities.

In May 2019, the US placed Huawei on its Entity List; companies placed on it cannot obtain products made in the US with more than 25% of American content without obtaining a licence. But Huawei was able to easily skirt around this restriction by getting products it needed supplied by branches of US firms located outside the physical boundaries of the US.

American companies have no objection to doing business with Huawei; indeed, they are eager not to lose this business because Huawei's orders are in the millions and, often, billions of dollars.

About the only outcome from the Entity List entry to affect Huawei was its inability to continue using the proprietary version of Google's Android mobile operating system; this includes apps like Gmail, Maps, Drive, YouTube, the PlayStore and Photos. Huawei has had to confine itself to using the open-source version of Android, which has none of these apps, and is trying to create replacements.

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Scott Kennedy: "Despite progress by Huawei and other Chinese firms, they are still dependent on US and Western firms higher up the food chain." Photo: courtesy Scott Kennedy

Google applied for an exemption to continue supplying Huawei, but did not get one. Microsoft was more successful, obtaining a waiver from the Department of Commerce to continue supplying the Shenzhen firm with its Windows operating system that Huawei uses on its laptops.

The US came back in May this year with further restrictions aimed at cutting off Huawei's supply of semiconductors which it gets mostly from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. This was done through the Foreign Direct Product Rule that makes it necessary for any company — American or foreign — that sells American products or those made using American technology to require a permit before selling to Huawei.

Kennedy's musings apply to this latter rule. He pointed out that according to the US trade lobby group, the Semiconductor Industry Association, between 2000 and 2019, US chip sales almost doubled from US$102 billion (A$141.5 billion) to US$193 billion and now claimed 44.5% of the entire global market.

"Over the same period, domestic employment in the sector rose from 186,000 to 241,000 — many working in the country’s 71 major commercial fabrication facilities, which are spread across 18 states. The US chip sector is bolstered by a leadership position in semiconductor equipment, the tools used to make and process wafers as well as {those used to] test and assemble the final chipsets," Kennedy explained.

"According to the US International Trade Commission, US chip equipment firms, which have roughly 60,000 domestic employees, account for at least half of global production and in several areas are the only supplier. The United States is even more dominant in chip design software, controlling 80% of the global market."

Kennedy is not the first American expert to warn that Washington's semiconductor moves would end up hurting the US; as iTWire reported recently, China expert Doug Fuller has predicted that the US Government may end up shooting itself in the foot by weaponising the semiconductor supply chain.

Another word of advice has come from the British international magazine, The Economist, which said the May strictures could drive part of the semiconductor industry out of the US, not exactly the outcome that power brokers in the US expect.

Kennedy said the industry’s success was not achieved in isolation. Its growth — and the rise of chip firms such as Intel, Qualcomm and Nvidia, equipment makers such as Applied Materials and LAM Research and chip design software firms such as Synopsis and Cadence — was intimately connected with the rise of the Asia-Pacific as a nexus of design, production, assembly, testing and consumption of chips and related downstream sectors; everything from smartphones and computers to telecommunications equipment and medical devices.

In this mix, China played an enormous role, Kennedy said. He illustrated this by pointing out that Chinese companies and consumers were deeply woven into this highly integrated network.

"China was the direct destination of US$8.8 billion of the US chip sector’s US$46 billion in exports in 2019; but if you include total sales from US chip firms, the total was at least US$70 billion," Kennedy said. "Those chips go to downstream Chinese and multinational firms, which are often co-located in dense industrial clusters, facilitating the continuous improvement of products and services at declining costs for global consumers.

"Simultaneously, US chip equipment firms export about 90% of their production, with the great majority going to East Asia, including US$3.6 billion to China. In addition to hugely benefitting from access to the Chinese market, having Huawei and other Chinese ICT firms integrated into global production networks means they are part of US-led ecosystems.

"Despite progress by Huawei and other Chinese firms, they are still dependent on US and Western firms higher up the food chain. Many elements of this hierarchy have endured, with the semiconductor industry as its most crucial cog."

He said China would not stay quiet as the campaign to isolate Huawei continued. "Beijing will certainly respond in kind, locking out US firms in favour of their counterparts from Europe, South Korea and Japan, partly out of spite, partly out of a need to have reliable suppliers," Kennedy said.

"Moreover, as a result of these restrictions, China is accelerating its infamous 'indigenous innovation' strategy like never before. China’s chip industry is still several generations behind, but it is more likely to advance when deprived of external supplies. Rather than crushing China’s high-tech designs, US actions are fuelling them."

He said one consequence would be slower global sales and the US chip industry's gradual loss of dominance. He cited a Boston Consulting Group study as claiming a full decoupling with China would reduce the sector’s revenue by 37% and lower its global market share to 30%; by contrast, China’s market share would rise from 3% to 31%.

Added Kennedy: "And a weakened US chip industry cannot but hurt the rest of the country’s related sectors, including flagship companies and smaller suppliers as well as their employees. One might think that the US industry could prosper even more if it on-shored all of its manufacturing and locked Chinese competitors such as Huawei out of the West.

"But one industry insider told me the frank truth: 'The idea that we can decouple from China and our industry will still be successful is not tethered to reality'.”

Kennedy said it was possible to justify a smaller and less dominant US chip industry if crippling Huawei and the decoupling of the technology industry were both needed to protect the national security of the United States. But, he said, it would end up having a diametrically opposite effect.

"Most importantly, the United States’ military preparedness would suffer," Kennedy claimed. "Over the last few decades, federal funding has stagnated, but US industry has filled the gap and then some.

"Total semiconductor R&D by private firms in 2019 was almost US$40 billion, or nearly 20% of total sales. A less profitable US chip industry means fewer funds available for R&D, and less R&D translates into less progress in accelerating computing power and developing new applications, including for the US military and intelligence community.

"Conversely, as China fills some of the gaps created by the withdrawal of US firms from their industry, Beijing will have more resources available for their own civil- military fusion program."

While banning Huawei components from US 5G networks could reduce the risks of Chinese surveillance, a singular focus on the supply chain could well provide a false sense of security and result in the US letting its guard down to other cyber risks, Kennedy said.

"Instead, there is a school of thought that effective cyber security begins with the assumption of 'zero trust', viewing threats as possible from everyone and everywhere, regardless of the equipment.

"Having only US or 'trusted' suppliers will not on its own eliminate cyber risks. As a result, the benefits of building a 'fortress' for safe networks may be overstated, especially if doing so distracts the US from continuous monitoring and protection of networks and other emerging challenges."

Kennedy said the degree to which the US economy was embedded, including in high tech, in the Asia-Pacific also raised the benefits of co-operation with its allies and increased the costs of greater aggression to China.

"Having a stake in each other’s success helps cement closer US ties with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and ASEAN, and all of them with each other," he explained.

"A similar logic of shared interests because of economic inter-dependence has tempered China’s diplomatic and security behaviour over the long run. Chinese actions in the South China Sea and elsewhere are deeply troubling, but fewer economic ties would lower the costs of such actions to China."

On the political side, he said the taming benefits of inter-dependence applied mostly to China’s relationship with Taiwan. "The island’s economy has blossomed in the last quarter century because of — not in spite of — the island’s economic integration with the mainland," Kennedy said.

"Roughly 40% of Taiwan’s exports go to China, and cumulative Taiwan investment in China is over US$200 billion. All the while, the proportion of manufacturing jobs in Taiwan has held steady (26.5%). If the new rules on chip sales are fully implemented and followed by further restrictions, Taiwan’s economy will suffer and the risk of cross-strait conflict is likely to grow.

"The firm most immediately caught in the middle of this conflict is TSMC, the world’s largest chip contractor, who will soon have to stop doing business with Huawei, which currently counts for 12% of its revenue. Even if TSMC can find other business in the short term and can expand production in the US over the longer term — an initial step is the proposed US$12 billion fab in Arizona — it still stands to suffer mightily over the long term if sales to Huawei and other Chinese customers dry up.

"Just about every major Taiwanese firm, from Foxconn to Acer to MediaTek, is highly dependent on the continuation of cross-strait commerce. Close cross-strait economic ties are also vitally important to China. Not only do Taiwanese firms, such as Foxconn, employ millions of Chinese workers, but the island also plays a crucial role in China’s tech sector. In chip production, even with the emergence of manufacturers such as Shanghai-based Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, TSMC is irreplaceable.

"This economic reality is a huge disincentive for China to openly use force against the island. A US policy to strangle China’s semiconductor and telecom sectors, thereby decoupling China and Taiwan’s economies, raises the security risks for Taipei and, hence, for the US.

He offered a few steps that could be taken: "Address the largest security risks with multiple tools and through co-ordinated action that has international legitimacy; Use export controls and investment restrictions to reduce national security risks, and use fair-trade tools to counter unfair commercial activity; Diversify and compete, do not decouple; and [Realise].applications matter as much as infrastructure."


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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