China’s next chip battle is for the bottom line

Date: 2023-09-19T02:44:11Z


HONG KONG, Sept 19 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Huawei’s new phone demonstrates China can produce cutting-edge hardware despite U.S. restrictions. But the country’s ability to profitably scale its success remains unclear. Lasting victory in the chip war will only be within reach if its companies can live without serious government funding.

The Shenzhen-based company has not explained exactly how seven-nanometer chips ended up in the new Mate 60 Pro smartphone series. However, a teardown by analysts at TechInsights showed the device’s Kirin 9000s processors were made in China. The researchers hailed a milestone: their observations suggest Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (0981.HK) produced these without the sophisticated extreme ultraviolet lithography tools of Dutch equipment maker ASML (ASML.AS), which Washington has put off limits. Some other components were sourced from non-domestic suppliers, despite U.S. sanctions. All the memory chips appear to come from a legacy range by SK Hynix, even though the company said it has not done business with Huawei since before the rules were introduced.

Gleeful netizens and state media lost no time trumpeting those achievement, while patriotic consumers fueled sales. Huawei is now jacking up shipment targets for the Mate series by 20% to 40 million, local media reported on Tuesday. Analysts estimate deliveries of the Mate 60 Pro could top 5 million this year.

What remains unclear is how accurately SMIC can print designs onto miniscule wafers; any flaw in the famously sensitive technology could decrease the yield of chips. The manufacturer has less experience with this technology than rival TSMC (2330.TW), which has been producing similar products at scale since around 2018. News that the Mate 60 Pro had sold out days after its launch raises the question of whether volumes were capped by the quantity of chips available.

SMIC is already under pressure. The $28 billion company, whose top investors include a state-owned fund, said gross margin halved in the first six months of the year. To keep hitting major milestones it needs to spend vast sums: research and development costs increased two percentage points from a year earlier to $345 million or 11.4% of revenue, higher than the 8.7% reported by TSMC in its most recent quarter.

State support is generous and may yet grow. SMIC reported $111 million in government grants in the first half, and Beijing is launching a $40 billion fund to generate more cash for the industry. But the pace of progress depends on both how much and how effectively chipmakers invest. Huawei’s flashy phones have hogged the limelight: SMIC’s shrinking margins deserve the same scrutiny.

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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Huawei started preselling its Mate 60 Pro+ smartphone alongside a new foldable phone in September. The Chinese company started selling its high-end smartphones Mate 60 and Mate 60 Pro at the end of August.

The Huawei Mate 60 Pro contained a 7-nanometer processor that was made in China by Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp, according to analysts at TechInsights. The researchers noted this was a “manufacturing milestone” for the company, which it considers to be China’s most advanced chipmaker.

The phone also uses memory chips from SK Hynix, TechInsights also found. The SK Hynix chips have been available since at least 2021. The South Korean company says it has not done business with Huawei since before U.S. sanctions were imposed, Bloomberg reported on Sept. 15.

Editing by Una Galani and Thomas Shum

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Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Katrina Hamlin is global production editor, based in Hong Kong. She is also a columnist, writing on topics including environmental policy, cleantech and green finance, as well as the gambling industry in Macau and Asia. Before joining Reuters in 2012, Katrina was deputy managing editor of Shanghai Business Review magazine. She graduated from the University of Oxford with an MA in Classics, and earned a Masters of Journalism with distinction from the University of Hong Kong.