China pushes to design its own chips, but still relies on foreign tech

A technologist inspects a computer chip.

Sefa Ozel | E+ | Getty Images

GUANGZHOU, China — China’s technology giants have been pushing to develop their own semiconductors or chips, a move seen as progress toward China’s goal to become self-reliant in the critical technology.

In reality, China is still a long way off even if it’s one step closer to self-sufficiency, according to one expert, adding that the country is still heavily dependent on foreign technology and lagging in the so-called leading edge part of the chip market.

Semiconductors are key components in everything from smartphones to modern refrigerators to cars. They’ve also become a key focus of the broader technology battle between the U.S. and China.

The world’s second-largest economy has for years invested heavily into boosting its domestic chip industry, but it has struggled to catch up with rivals in the U.S. and other parts of Asia. Increasingly, semiconductors are seen as key to national security for many countries and a sign of technological prowess.

There’s been a slew of announcements from major Chinese technology companies this year regarding chips made in China.

In August, Baidu launched Kunlun 2, its second-generation artificial intelligence chip. This week, Alibaba released a chip designed for servers and cloud computing. Smartphone maker Oppo is also developing its own high-end processors for its handsets, the Nikkei reported on Wednesday.

This is a step in becoming more self-sufficient in semiconductors but a small one.

Peter Hanbury

partner, Bain & Company

While these companies are designing their own chips, they might still have to rely on foreign tools to do so. But when it comes to manufacturing and the broader supply chain, China’s internet giants are still heavily dependent on foreign companies.

“This is a step in becoming more self-sufficient in semiconductors but a small one,” Peter Hanbury, a partner at Bain & Company, told CNBC by email. “Specifically, these are examples of locally designed chips but a lot of the IP [intellectual property], manufacturing, equipment and materials are still sourced internationally.”

The reason these companies are designing their own chips is because they can create semiconductors for specific applications so as to differentiate from their competitors.

Foreign-dominated supply chain

A closer look at the specifics of the silicon being designed shows China’s reliance on foreign companies.

Take Alibaba’s new Yitian 710 chip. That is based on architecture from British semiconductor firm Arm. It will also be built upon the so-called 5-nanometer process, the most advanced chip technology at the moment.

Baidu’s Kunlun 2 chip is based on the 7-nanometer process. Oppo meanwhile is reportedly working on a 3-nanometer chip.

This is where the challenge lies for China.

The country does not have a company capable of manufacturing these leading edge semiconductors at these sizes. They will have to rely on just three companies — Intel from the U.S., TSMC from Taiwan and Samsung in South Korea.

China’s largest chip manufacturer SMIC is still years behind its companies in terms of manufacturing technology.

But it’s not just manufacturing. Even companies…

Read More: China pushes to design its own chips, but still relies on foreign tech

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