Last week, Huawei made a surprising announcement, unveiling its new flagship phone, the Mate 60 Pro. What was particularly noteworthy about this device is that it is powered by the Kirin 9000s 5G chipset, which was manufactured by SMIC, China’s largest foundry, using its 7nm process node. This development surprised many U.S. government officials due to export rules that prevent Huawei, without a special license, from acquiring cutting-edge chips from any foundry that uses American-built parts.
To produce 7nm chips like the Kirin 9000s, a foundry typically relies on an extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) machine to etch circuitry patterns on a silicon wafer. ASML, a Dutch company, is the sole manufacturer of this machine and has adhered to U.S. demands not to ship any EUV machines to China.
Huawei has previously obtained special licenses to purchase modified Qualcomm Snapdragon chips for its smartphones, which do not support 5G connectivity. However, the Mate 60 Pro is the first device in three years to feature a homegrown Kirin chip that does support 5G. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has voiced the U.S. government’s desire to learn more about the composition of this new Kirin chip.
Despite being a few generations behind Apple’s 3nm A17 Bionic chip, some analysts believe that the Mate 60 Pro could have a significant impact on iPhone sales in China. Edison Lee, an analyst at Jefferies, suggests that the Mate 60 Pro could potentially reduce iPhone sales in one of Apple’s largest markets by up to 38%. This prediction comes as Apple prepares to launch its new iPhone 15 series next week.
Experts are urging the U.S. to closely examine the Kirin chip to determine if Huawei, SMIC, and the Chinese government circumvented certain aspects of the U.S. restrictions in its production. They assert that if any breaches are uncovered and not addressed, efforts by the U.S. and its allies to limit China’s access to advanced technologies will crumble.
The situation is seen as a test of the U.S. policy regarding Huawei, with Lin Tsung-nan, an electrical engineering professor at National Taiwan University, stating that “Huawei is testing the U.S. red line now. If the U.S. doesn’t take any action, Huawei will think there’s nothing to be afraid of, and its other suppliers will start to emulate what SMIC does, and U.S. sanctions will crumble.”
Ajit Manocha, CEO of industry group SEMI, highlights the strategic importance of the semiconductor industry and each country’s efforts to strengthen their operations. He stated, “Given the geopolitical tensions, each country is doing its best to stabilize and enhance their own operation. So, I’m not surprised that China has actually been working on this for years.”