Chinese Chip Sector Is Five Generations Behind the World: The Gap Will Expand

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

In 2020, Chinese chip champion Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. was two or three generations behind global leaders. Today, following several rounds of crippling U.S. sanctions against the Chinese semiconductor sector, the People's Republic's chip industry is at least five generations behind — and the gap can expand, according to Gerald Yin, chief executive of Advanced Micro-Fabrication Equipment Inc., a wafer fab equipment manufacturer from China, reports DigiTimes.

The past two U.S. administrations have introduced 15 semiconductor-focused sanctions to keep China's semiconductor production technologies generations behind the global leaders — namely Intel from the U.S., Samsung from South Korea, and TSMC from Taiwan. Back in 2020, SMIC was about to start making chips on its 7nm-class manufacturing process that featured a logic transistor density akin to that of TSMC's N7 and Intel's 10nm. At the time, SMIC was a couple of generations behind TSMC, which was gearing up to start production of chips on its N5 (5nm-class) node.

But the sweeping sanctions imposed by the U.S. government on October 7, 2022, and followed by Japan and the Netherlands in 2023, have set the Chinese semiconductor industry back by at least a decade. Wafer fab tools manufacturers need to obtain a special license to ship equipment that can be used to make logic chips with non-planar transistors on 14nm/16nm nodes and below, 3D NAND with 128 or more layers, and DRAM memory chips of 18nm half-pitch or less to a Chinese entity. This effectively limits China's semiconductor industry to 28nm and thicker nodes — unless it can come up with its own wafer fab tools, or the export licenses are granted.

The ramifications of these restrictions are palpable in the Chinese semiconductor landscape. SMIC, a front-runner in China's semiconductor domain, had once been vocal about its advancements with 14nm and 12nm nodes. Yet, by mid-2023, any mention of these technologies disappeared from its website and other official communications. Despite these setbacks, some insiders are optimistic, viewing the U.S. obstacles as an opportunity for China to bolster its domestic semiconductor equipment prowess.

If this does not happen, the gap between China's semiconductor industry and the global leaders will expand even further, barring other changes in government policy.

Anton Shilov
Contributing Writer

Anton Shilov is a contributing writer at Tom’s Hardware. Over the past couple of decades, he has covered everything from CPUs and GPUs to supercomputers and from modern process technologies and latest fab tools to high-tech industry trends.

  • Order 66
    I hope China stays behind what we have in America.
  • Kamen Rider Blade
    jaydenmiller1 said:
    I hope China stays behind what we have in America.
    I hope the gap widens, they need to be more than 10x generations behind the Western world.

    The farther the gap, the better.
  • ex_bubblehead
    As this was bound to turn into a political powder keg, as evidenced by now deleted posts, this thread is now closed.