Why do most Chinese like Trump

Hypersonic missiles and supercomputers: what recent US sanctions against China are all about

President Biden has for the first time imposed export bans like Donald Trump before him. The focus is on China's military and its supposed miracle weapon. The chip stronghold Taiwan is also reacting.

Supercomputers can simulate what would be too expensive, too complex or simply impossible for physical experiments. The possibilities are practically endless. Chinese researchers are investigating, for example, how the asphalt of highways changes, how scarce water resources can be better distributed, or threatening landslides can be recognized early.

According to a report in the Washington Post last week, the researchers are also simulating how to configure novel hypersonic missiles. This involves parameters such as temperature, weight and gravity. Hypersonic missiles fly at more than five times the speed of sound, that is more than 6000 kilometers per hour. This would allow them to escape today's defense systems.

Shortly after the newspaper article was published, the US again put Chinese tech organizations on its "entity list". Washington accuses the seven companies and data centers of being involved in the construction of supercomputers that are used by China's military, among other things for weapons of mass destruction.

Such great computing skills are essential for the development of probably all modern weapons and national security systems, said Minister of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo in a statement. She cited nuclear and hypersonic weapons as examples. The Chinese State Department rejected the allegations and accused Washington of abuse of power with the aim of ousting Chinese high-tech companies.

Biden continues Trump course

The sanctions are remarkable in several ways. At first glance, they may seem like the umpteenth round in the conflict between the US and China for technological supremacy. That should also explain the low media response. However, the sanctions are the first of their kind under President Joe Biden. After many signs of confrontation, Biden is now signaling to China that he will continue the tough course of his predecessor Donald Trump in the area of ​​technology.

In addition, the sanctions are particularly strict. If American companies want to continue selling their products to the seven organizations, they must apply for an export license. The same is true of foreign companies that use American technology in the manufacture of their products, such as software for making chips. In the current case, however, such applications have a particularly low chance of success: the so-called presumption of refusal applies in contrast to the individual case examination.

Such case-by-case reviews continue to apply to three of China's national supercomputing centers, which the US blacklisted as early as 2015. So these sanctions were less strict, at least on paper. The fact that they were enacted under President Obama illustrates once again that, contrary to popular perception, the tech conflict between the US and China was simmering long before Trump.

China landed on the "entity list" for the first time in 1997, namely in the form of the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics. The academy researches and produces nuclear warheads and today operates part of the Tianhe-2 (“Milky Way”) supercomputer. When it was launched in 2013, it was considered the fastest in the world.

5G, chips, supercomputers

Biden's sanctions add another discipline to the tech competition with China. After punitive measures against 5G (against Huawei) and chips (against the manufacturer SMIC), high-performance computers are now finally affected. Because now all of China's seven national supercomputing centers are subject to sanctions.

In this area, as in so many others, China is apparently ceaselessly narrowing its lag behind the USA. According to the industry website “Top 500” ten years ago, the country only had a share of just under 13 percent of the global performance of supercomputers; the US held about 50 percent. In the meantime, however, both great powers are at around a quarter of the output, with only a small advantage for America.

The USA's lead over China is melting

Share in the global performance of supercomputers, selected countries

The question now is what impact the recent sanctions will have on China's high-performance computers. Beijing has been developing its own processors for a long time so that it no longer has to rely on the dominant American providers. For example, the Tianhe-2 supercomputer still uses processors from Intel. Its successor Tianhe-3, however, relies exclusively on processors from the Chinese company Sunway - which is now also on the US black list.

Even if China can partially upgrade to its own hardware, the sanctions are likely to hit those affected, such as the National Supercomputing Center in the tech metropolis of Shenzhen. On its website, the center names leading American tech companies as partners: Intel, AMD, Nvidia, Microsoft, HP and the IBM software subsidiary Red Hat. The center also uses American and other foreign software as simulation software. The center left an e-mail request unanswered, and the media office hung up on calls without comment.

The case of China's hypersonic missiles also illustrates Beijing's vulnerability. According to the Washington Post, the weapons are being tested on the Tianhe-3 supercomputer. This contains chips from the company Phytium, which is now also subject to sanctions. The company from Tianjin near Beijing, like most chip suppliers worldwide, depends on so-called design software from American manufacturers such as Cadence and Synopsys.

Taiwan and TSMC in a dilemma

Like most of its competitors, Phytium needs a contract manufacturer for the actual production of the chips. According to the Washington Post, this is the world market leader TSMC from Taiwan - that is, from the island that China regards as part of its territory. Beijing regularly threatens Taipei with a military invasion, and Taiwan in particular should feel threatened by hypersonic missiles, along with the USA.

TSMC said it was not aware that its products would be used for military end uses. Indeed, it can be difficult to understand, as confirmed by Che-Jen Wang of the Taiwanese think tank Institute for National Defense and Security Research. Because TSMC apparently did not have Phytium as a customer, but the intermediary Taiwanese supplier Alchip.

This announced on Tuesday that it would no longer supply the sanctioned Phytium. And finally, Taiwan's Minister of Economic Affairs assured on Wednesday that local companies would comply with the US sanctions.

NZZ PRO Global Talk: Microchips as the heart of our digital society: the fight for supremacy
Microchips are not only built into computers, but are also important components in electric cars, smartphones and wind turbines. The great demand for semiconductors is already leading to delivery bottlenecks. This important component of digitization has long since become a political issue between the USA, China and Europe. Discuss further developments with the NZZ PRO Global editorial team.
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