Amid the good wishes of the US commerce secretary who toured China last week, Huawei, the telecom giant facing tough US trade restrictions, released a smartphone that illustrates how difficult it is for the United States to contain China’s technological excellence. .
The new phone is powered by a chip that appears to be the most advanced version of China’s homegrown technology to date — the kind of breakthrough the United States is trying to prevent China from achieving.
The timing of its release may not be a coincidence. The Commerce Department led the US effort to block Beijing’s ability to gain access to advanced chips, and the commerce secretary, Gina M. Raimondo, spent much of her trip defending the US crackdown to officials of the China, which forced him to relax some of the rules.
The powerful role of Ms. Raimondo — as well as China’s antipathy to US curbs — can be seen online, where more than a dozen vendors have cropped up on Chinese e-commerce sites to sell phone cases for the new model with printed face of Ms. Raimondo on the way back. The doctored photos showed that Ms. Raimondo the new phone, next to phrases like “I’m Raimondo, this time I’m endorsing Huawei” and “Huawei mobile phone ambassador Raimondo.”
Chinese media hailed the phone as a sign of the country’s technological independence, but US analysts said success would likely still depend on using American technology and machinery, which could violate US trade restrictions. .
Beginning with the Trump administration and continuing under President Biden, the United States has steadily increased its restrictions on the sale of advanced chips and the machinery needed to make them to China, and to Huawei in particular, in an attempt stop China’s excellence in technologies. which can help its military.
For the past few years, those restrictions have hampered Huawei’s ability to make 5G phones. But it appears that Huawei has found a way around those restrictions to produce an advanced phone, albeit in limited quantities. Although detailed information about the phone is limited, it appears that Huawei’s jade-green Mate 60 Pro has many of the same basic capabilities as other smartphones on the market.
A review of the phone by TechInsights, a Canadian firm that analyzes the semiconductor industry, concluded that the advanced chip inside was made by the Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation of China and operates beyond the limits of the technology that the United States is trying to implement. .
Douglas Fuller, an associate professor at Copenhagen Business School, said SMIC appears to have used equipment stockpiled before the restrictions took effect, equipment licensed to it for the purpose of making chips for the companies. other than Huawei, and spare parts obtained through third-party vendors to integrate its production.
“The official line in China of a heroic breaking of the technology blockade by American imperialists is incorrect,” Mr. Fuller said. “Instead, the US allowed SMIC to continue to have significant access to American technology.”
Huawei and SMIC did not respond to a request for comment. The Commerce Department also did not respond to a request for comment.
Commentators on Chinese social media and news sites celebrated the release of the smartphone as evidence that US restrictions could not stop China from developing its own technology.
“Regardless of Huawei’s intentions, the launch of the Mate 60 Pro was perceived by many Chinese netizens as having a deeper meaning of ‘rising under US pressure,'” the state-run Global Times said in an editorial.
The phone was released in a week when American and Chinese officials issued numerous statements about renewed cooperation and communication. Chinese officials have demanded that the United States roll back its chip export restrictions. But Ms. Raimondo – whose email, along with that of other US officials, was targeted this year by Chinese hackers – told reporters he took a hard line on technology controls in his meetings. , said that the United States is not ready to remove restrictions or compromise on issues of national security.
During the trip, Ms. Raimondo and his advisers set up a dialogue to share information about how the United States enforces its technology controls. He said the move would lead to better Chinese compliance but was not an invitation to the Chinese to try to reduce export controls.
The release of the Huawei phone raises questions about whether Ms. Raimondo will continue to work to build goodwill with Chinese officials — or potentially take a more aggressive stance toward curbing China’s access to American technology.
The Biden administration is preparing to issue a final version of the technology restrictions it first released last October, and revised rules could come within weeks.
Huawei’s phone development does not necessarily represent a major step forward for Chinese technological prowess – or the total failure of US export controls, analysts said.
Because Chinese companies no longer have access to the most modern machines for making semiconductors, they have developed novel workarounds that use older machinery to create more powerful chips. But these methods are both relatively time-consuming for manufacturers, and produce a higher proportion of defective chips, limiting production scale.
“This does not mean that China can produce advanced semiconductors at scale,” said Paul Triolo, an associate partner for China and technology policy at the Albright Stonebridge Group, a consultancy. “But it shows what incentives US controls have created for Chinese companies to collaborate and try new ways to innovate on their existing capabilities.”
“This is the first major salvo in what will be a decade or more of a struggle for China’s semiconductor industry to essentially reinvent parts of the global semiconductor supply chain that do not involve US technology,” he added.
Nazak Nikakhtar, a partner at Wiley Rein and a former Commerce Department official, said Huawei’s development was “a result of long-standing US policy” — specifically US licenses that allow companies to continue to sales of advanced technologies to companies placed by the Commerce Department on a so-called entity list, such as Huawei and SMIC.
From Jan. 3 through March 31, 2022, the Commerce Department approved licenses for the sale of $23 billion of tech products to companies on the entity list, according to information released in February of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Where there are gaps in the licensing rules, exports will go through the gaps,” said Ms. Nikakhtar. “The US government needs to close the loopholes if its goal is to limit the export of critical technologies to China.”
Claire Fu contributed reporting.