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Screenshot of a presentation from China's main state-owned rocket manufacturer, CALT.
Enlarge / Screenshot of a presentation from China’s main state-owned rocket manufacturer, CALT.

This weekend, China celebrated its sixth “National Space Day” in Nanjing, a capital city in one of the country’s eastern provinces. As part of the festivities, Chinese space officials highlighted the Chang’e-5 mission’s recent return of lunar samples, some of which were on display, and announced the name of China’s first Mars rover, Zhurong, which is scheduled to land on the red planet in May.

A booth operated by China’s main state-owned rocket manufacturer, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, also spotlighted the potential for suborbital point-to-point transportation. This is a concept in which a vehicle launches from Earth, flies into suborbital space, and touches down halfway around the world in less than an hour.

The promotional video, captured and shared on the Chinese social network Weibo, shows two different concepts for achieving suborbital passenger flights about two decades from now. What is interesting about the video (which I’ve mirrored on YouTube) is that the first concept looks strikingly like SpaceX’s Starship vehicle. It shows a large vehicle capable of vertical takeoff and vertical landing.

The concept is notable not only for its appearance to Starship—the vehicle’s exterior is shiny, like the stainless steel structure of Starship, and the first and second stages are similarly seamless—but in its function as well. Although Starship has primarily been promoted as a vehicle to take humans to the Moon and Mars, SpaceX has also developed a point-to-point concept.

SpaceX first unveiled this “Earth to Earth” concept in September 2017. A video released at the time showed a suborbital flight time on Starship from New York City to Shanghai of just 39 minutes and advertised the capability of “anywhere on Earth in less than an hour.”

The second point-to-point concept in the Chinese video showed a horizontal takeoff, horizontal landing vehicle that used some sort of electromagnetic catapult.

Both of these systems are part of China’s previously announced plans to develop global point-to-point transportation by 2045. Under the country’s long-term planning goals, Chinese industry would begin delivering cargo around the globe via suborbital flight by 2035 and passengers by 2045.

This would not be the first time that the Chinese space program has drawn inspiration from SpaceX. The country tracked SpaceX from the very beginning, particularly with an interest in SpaceX’s plans to reuse rocket first stages. During the company’s very first launch in 2006, as reported in the book Liftoff, a Chinese spy boat was in the small patch of ocean where the Falcon 1 rocket’s first stage was due to reenter.

More recently, in 2019, the Chinese Long March 2C rocket tested “grid fins” like those used by the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket to steer itself through the atmosphere during the reentry process. China intends to develop the Long March 8 rocket to land on a sea platform like the Falcon 9 booster did, and semi-private Chinese firms such as LinkSpace and Galactic Energy appear to be mimicking SpaceX launch technology.

It’s not clear whether China would also develop a Starship-like vehicle for interplanetary transport. For now, the country plans to develop a more conventional super heavy lifter known as the Long March 9 rocket, as well as a triple-core booster that resembles SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.

China shouldn’t get US semiconductor design software, congressmen say
China News Service | Getty Images

Don’t let American companies sell semiconductor design software to Chinese firms, two members of Congress are asking the Department of Commerce. 

Sen. Tom Cotton (R- Ark.) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) yesterday requested that electronic design automation (EDA) tools be designated as “foundational technologies” by the Department of Commerce. The label would require companies to obtain export licenses if they want to sell EDA tools to Chinese companies. The congressmen also requested in their letter to Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo that any fab worldwide that uses American tools be prevented from selling 14 nm or better chips to Chinese companies.

The current leading edge in semiconductors is the 5 nm node, and currently, only Samsung and Taiwanese semiconductor company TSMC are producing chips commercially at that node. Restricting Chinese companies to 16 nm or larger could possibly keep them four generations off the leading edge. 

Semiconductors are incredibly important to China, which imported more than $300 billion worth of chips last year. That’s more than the country spends on imported oil. 

If the US government were to cut Chinese companies off from EDA tools, it would be a significant blow to the country’s already lagging semiconductor industry. Chinese semiconductor manufacturers are almost entirely reliant on foreign tools and software, and the country’s own EDA software is eight to ten years behind. There are EDA companies based outside the US, but American firms are particularly dominant, with companies like Cadence Design Systems and Synopsys controlling around 90 percent of the market, according to some estimates.

Stuck behind

The Chinese semiconductor market has always been behind the leading edge, though it has caught up in recent years as companies like SMIC have recruited heavily from TSMC and Samsung. The company has been producing chips at 14 nm in decent numbers, and last year it announced its “N+1” node, which it says is 57 percent more efficient and 20 percent faster. But yields on that new process are reportedly low, and it likely represents a dead-end unless SMIC can obtain an extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) machine from photolithography company ASML.

EUV is all but required to produce semiconductors at 5 nm or below. The technology uses 13.5 nm UV light to etch features on a wafer. Existing deep ultraviolet tools (DUV) use 193 nm light. Even with the clever hacks the industry has implemented to make DUV work at smaller nodes, yields below 7 nm using DUV would be too low to be commercially viable. 

It’s unlikely that SMIC will ever get its hands on ASML’s most advanced machine, though. SMIC placed an order for an EUV machine in 2018, but that order has been held up by government officials in the Netherlands, where ASML is based. The US government began pressuring Dutch officials to halt the sale almost immediately after the order was placed, and a year and a half ago, the US, the Netherlands, and Japan (where Canon is another potential supplier of advanced lithography tools) entered into an ad-hoc agreement not to sell advanced chipmaking equipment to China. 

Cotton and McCaul’s request to bar China from obtaining advanced EDA software would further stymie China’s ambitions. As semiconductor manufacturing has grown ever more sophisticated, the tools required to produce chips have advanced apace. Barring China from obtaining EUV likely would set the country back a decade or more. The Chinese government is spending over $1 trillion to catapult its semiconductor industry to the leading edge, but it still faces headwinds. For example, it took ASML more than a decade before its EUV tools were ready to be inserted into customers’ production lines. Restricting Chinese companies’ access to EDA tools would only add to their already significant challenges. 

A staff member works beside China's 'Sunway TaihuLight' supercomputer at the National Supercomputer Center on August 29, 2020 in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province of China.
Enlarge / A staff member works beside China’s ‘Sunway TaihuLight’ supercomputer at the National Supercomputer Center on August 29, 2020 in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province of China.
China News Service | Getty Images

The US has placed Chinese groups accused of building supercomputers to help the Chinese military on an export blacklist, the first such move by the Biden administration to make it harder for China to obtain US technology.

Three companies and four branches of China’s National Supercomputing Center were added to the US government “entity list,” which bars American companies from exporting technology to the groups without a license.

The US commerce department said the groups were involved in building supercomputers used by Chinese “military actors” and facilitating programmes to develop weapons of mass destruction.

“Supercomputing capabilities are vital for the development of many—perhaps almost all—modern weapons and national security systems, such as nuclear weapons and hypersonic weapons,” said Gina Raimondo, the US commerce secretary.

She said the administration would use “the full extent of its authorities to prevent China from leveraging US technologies to support these destabilising military modernization efforts.”

The Chinese entities are Tianjin Phytium Information Technology, Shanghai High-Performance Integrated Circuit Design Center, Sunway Microelectronics, and the National Supercomputing Center branches.

The US is concerned about China gaining access to American technology that helps the People’s Liberation Army close the gap with the US military and field weapons that could alter the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.

The Washington Post this week said Phytium designed semiconductors using US technology to power supercomputers being employed to develop hypersonic missiles, which are hard to detect because of their speed.

The newspaper said Phytium used technology from Cadence Design Systems and Synopsys. The entity list move would effectively prevent the two California-based companies from providing services and products to the Chinese firms. But it would not bar them from supplying the Chinese groups if that technology were produced in facilities outside of the US.

The Washington Post said Phytium outsourced the manufacturing of its chips to TSMC, the Taiwanese company that has become the world’s most advanced semiconductor manufacturer.

The Financial Times previously reported that the Trump administration had pressed the Taiwanese government to restrict TSMC from producing chips for Huawei, which it said were being used in Chinese missiles.

Placing the Chinese groups on the entity list also does not bar TSMC from supplying them with chips since the US did not employ the “foreign direct product rule”—which would ban any foreign company that uses US technology, such as TSMC, from exporting to Phytium or the other groups.

The Trump administration used that rule to implement tough export controls related to Huawei in a move that closed previous loopholes.

Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House foreign affairs committee welcomed the move to put Phytium on the entity list, but said it was only a “half-measure” because the foreign direct product rule was not invoked.

“The lessons we learned from the loopholes in the Huawei entity listing must be incorporated as standard operating procedures for our export control policy to ensure they are truly effective,” McCaul said.

But Lindsay Gorman, a technology expert at the German Marshall Fund, said that by using a tool that was frequently employed by his predecessor, Biden had “put to bed” any sense that he would not be tough on China.

“It was an open tool whether a favoured tool of the Trump administration would be continued in the Biden administration,” Gorman said.

Trump put dozens of Chinese companies on the entity list, including Huawei, the telecoms equipment manufacturer, and Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation.

The Biden administration is reviewing dozens of China-related actions that Donald Trump took in his last year in office, including an order that prohibits Americans from investing in Chinese companies that the Pentagon says help the People’s Liberation Army. The US is also talking to allies in Asia and Europe to try to find ways to coordinate export controls.

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