Washington Considers Sucker Punch to Asian Memory Chip Makers in Bid for Dominance

Washington Considers Sucker Punch to Asian Memory Chip Makers in Bid for Dominance
Photo: Imaginechina, AP

The U.S. is apparently moving on two fronts to try and create an edge for itself in the chip-making market. One is to try and emphasise American chipmakers with billions of dollars in funding. That could be years and years before we even see a change in the market thanks to new factories, however, the White House is also thinking that sticking its foot out to trip up Chinese chip makers going at full sprint may give it enough time to get its own chip capacity up to speed.

A Monday report from Reuters based on four anonymous sources familiar with the matter claimed the U.S. is trying for a double leg takedown on Asian dominance of the memory chip-making industry. Namely, the White House is considering somehow limiting the chip making equipment sent overseas to chip makers in China.

Though there has not been any public mention of such a ban, it would essentially involve barring shipments of U.S.-made equipment to China factories producing NAND-based storage that’s very important for SSDs and other flash storage. The restricted tools are used to make chips with over 128 layers.

It’s not the first time Washington has considered kicking the shins of China-based chipmakers. Another Reuters report from last month based on more anonymous sources said the Biden administration was thinking it could target chipmaking tools going to Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, AKA China’s largest chipmaker. During the reign of former President Donald Trump, a constant “Chi-na” antagonist, the U.S. limited exports of software and chip making equipment to the company.

Reuters noted this would impact big China-based companies like Yangtze Memory Technologies Company (more collectively known as YMTC) and other major chip manufacturers like South Korean-based Samsung, which has multiple factories in China. SK Hynix, another South Korean brand, bought out Intel’s China-based NAND and SSD businesses at the tail end of last year, so this could prove a blow to them as well.

According to Statista, U.S. makers Micron and Western Digital make up a little more than 23% of the worldwide NAND industry. Samsung still remains in a dominant position with a 35% stake in the global market. With the ongoing chip shortage, now going on for years, the Biden administration has said it wants to remove “choke points” in the supply chain.

Not to mention the massive $US52 ($72) billion CHIPS+ bill that recently passed by both the Senate and House, and now all it needs President Joe Biden’s signature.

Though there’s a question of whether any of these executive efforts, both past and present, will be enough to slow the Chinese chip maker’s roll. Recent reports show the semiconductor giant that is SMIC is making 7-nanometre chips modelled after the massive Taiwanese competitor TSMC’s designs, all despite U.S. sanctions on the country. It just goes to show that the U.S. is not anywhere near the be-all end-all for supply-side chip making, and some experts said efforts like the CHIPS+ bill will only go so far.

The U.S. has already written about how YMTC is an apparent threat to the likes of Micron since its received “an estimated $US24 ($33) billion in subsidies from Chinese government sources.” But the U.S. has taken the side of American big tech coming after the Chinese chip-maker for its deal with Apple to create upcoming iPhones flash memory chips.

In the meantime, Micron is doing its best to keep up with the competition. The company just recently talked up its 232-layer NAND chips that could lead to 200TB SSDs.