The panel of top technologists advises pushing back against China's 'market distorting' policies while funding basic R&D; coordinating 'moonshots; and encouraging cooperation among companies, academia and government.

Brian Santo, Senior editor, Test & Measurement / Components, Light Reading

January 8, 2017

5 Min Read
Obama's Tech Advisors Craft Response to China's Semiconductor Ambitions

A panel of President Obama's top science policy advisors say if the US wants to continue to have a competitive semiconductor industry, it is going to have to "push back" against China's semiconductor ambitions while improving the business environment for US semiconductor companies and "helping to catalyze transformative semiconductor innovation over the next decade."

These experts suggest setting up a formal technical advisory committee (TAC) populated by semiconductor industry executives with the Department of Commerce to keep up with the threat.

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) on Friday published its "Report to the President: Ensuring Long-Term U.S. Leadership in Semiconductors." The report is in large part a response to China's 12th Five Year Plan for the Semiconductor Industry. Part of the plan is to spend up to $150 billion to buy into the industry.

The PCAST found that China's industrial policies "are distorting markets in ways that undermine innovation, subtract from U.S. market share, and put U.S. national security at risk."

Among China's market-distorting practices, the PCAST says, is providing subsidies. These include "capital subsidies that encourage foreign companies to locate facilities in China as well as subsidized capital to domestic companies and investment firms to use in the acquisition of foreign companies and technologies."

This can benefit consumers in that it can lead to reduced costs and prices, but the panel contends that long-term subsidization of this sort tends to reduce innovation. Selling below cost can also threaten competitors.

The other problem with China's policies and practices, the PCAST says, is that they tend to be zero-sum, meaning any benefit to Chinese companies will come at a cost to rivals. These include:

  • Forcing or encouraging domestic customers to buy only from Chinese semiconductor suppliers

  • Forcing transfer of technology in exchange for access to the Chinese market

  • Theft of intellectual property

  • Collusion

The US must work with allies to negotiate with the Chinese to minimize these market distortions, the PCAST recommended. The US and its allies must also "coordinate and strengthen inward investment security and export controls, and responding firmly and consistently to Chinese violations of international agreements."

The PCAST notes that Taiwan has instituted specific policies to resist Chinese investment in Taiwanese semiconductor technology, while South Korea has policies to restrict flow of critical semiconductor intellectual property to China.

The panel recommends against actively impeding China's modernization activities. That includes not reflexively blocking every attempt to buy US companies or their technology. "The U.S. government will need to identify areas in which the diffusion of particular semiconductor technologies, or control of particular companies, poses intolerable national-security risks that cannot be mitigated through steps short of stopping their acquisition and, therefore, should be stopped to the extent possible," according to the report.

Chip companies that Chinese investors have bid on so far include Anadigics Inc. (Nasdaq: ANAD), Atmel Corp. (Nasdaq: ATML), Lattice Semiconductor Corp. (Nasdaq: LSCC), Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL), Micron Technology Inc. (Nasdaq: MU) and PMC-Sierra Inc. (Nasdaq: PMCS), among others. Chinese investors have typically been rebuffed, with many of the targeted companies stating their expectations of regulatory opposition to sales to Chinese interests. The pending sale of Lattice would be one of China's plans biggest acquisition plan successes thus far. (See Lattice Purchased by Somebody for $1.3B.)

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Ultimately the only way to remain ahead of China is to remain ahead, the PCAST says, by continuing to innovate. "Our core finding is this: the United States will only succeed in mitigating the dangers posed by Chinese industrial policy if it innovates faster. Policy can, in principle, slow the diffusion of technology, but it cannot stop the spread. And, as U.S. innovators face technological headwinds, other countries’ quest to catch up will only become easier. The only way to retain leadership is to outpace the competition."

To that end it recommends several measures, including funding basic research and development, reforming corporate tax laws and a series of “moonshots” such as developing game-changing biodefense systems and cutting-edge medical technologies.

The PCAST notes that the semiconductor business is important not just economically but that cutting-edge semiconductor technology is critical for US military strength and "and the pervasiveness of semiconductors makes their integrity important to mitigating cybersecurity risk."

In its report, the advisory committee notes that China has no tier 1 semiconductor manufacturing equipment vendors (and a single tier 2 supplier -- AMEC).

The context for this observation is Japan. In the 1980s, Japan made a concerted and quite successful effort to develop a domestic market for semiconductor production equipment. With that expertise, it was a relatively easy jump to semiconductor manufacturing.

The implication is that China is likely to target not only chip companies and chip technology, but also semiconductor production equipment and associated tech.

The report notes that IC companies with headquarters in the US represent half of global semiconductor sales. Meanwhile, the trend for semiconductor companies is to go fabless, and as of 2015, only 13% of all ICs are built in the US, down from 42% in 1980.

More and more of those fabs are being built in China -- the PCAST notes there are almost 400, though none of them are capable of building anything close to cutting-edge devices.

More on China's 12th Five-Year Plan
China has identified semiconductors as a "strategic, basic and leading industry for promoting the development of national economy and society," according to a translation of the plan provided by the Semiconductor Industry Association and the United States Information Technology Office.

The 12th Plan includes national coordination of expenditures of up to $150 billion of private capital over ten years to buy semiconductor-related companies and technology. The 12th Plan covers the years 2016 through 2020, but assumes the same policies will be pursued through 2025 and beyond.

One of China's goals is to be able to supply 70% of its internal needs (it currently supplies roughly 9% to 10%). Another is to be at a world-class level in all aspects of the semiconductor business by 2030.

— Brian Santo, SeniorEditor, Components, T&M, LightReading

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About the Author(s)

Brian Santo

Senior editor, Test & Measurement / Components, Light Reading

Santo joined Light Reading on September 14, 2015, with a mission to turn the test & measurement and components sectors upside down and then see what falls out, photograph the debris and then write about it in a manner befitting his vast experience. That experience includes more than nine years at video and broadband industry publication CED, where he was editor-in-chief until May 2015. He previously worked as an analyst at SNL Kagan, as Technology Editor of Cable World and held various editorial roles at Electronic Engineering Times, IEEE Spectrum and Electronic News. Santo has also made and sold bedroom furniture, which is not directly relevant to his role at Light Reading but which has already earned him the nickname 'Cribmaster.'

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