US-China tech war: calls for more tech bans on China get louder in Washington

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US Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, seen here on March 25, has called for additional restriction on China’s access to American technology by requiring companies to a license to export electronic design automation chip-making tools. Photo: EPA-EFE

Voices in Washington calling on the Biden administration to tighten technology restrictions on China have gotten louder in recent weeks, making it harder for the two great powers to ease tensions in what has become a bitter hi-tech rivalry.

US Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas, who was sanctioned by Beijing last August for his support of protesters in Hong Kong, and Representative Michael McCaul from Texas are the latest to call for additional restrictions on China. In a letter to the US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo on Tuesday, the two called for licensing exports of chip-design software to China.

Cotton and McCaul suggested in their letter that all US makers of electronic design automation (EDA) tools, an area in which China lags, should be required to obtain a government license before exporting to China in order to restrict the country’s ability to design advanced chips. The ban would ensure companies from the US and its allies “are not permitted to sell the communists the rope they will use to hang us all”, they wrote.

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The letter came four weeks after a similar one from US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who has also been sanctioned by Beijing, and McCaul calling for the US government to upgrade the sanctions against Shanghai-based Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC), China’s most advanced chip maker, to the same level as those placed on Huawei Technologies Co. This would “prohibit the transfer of goods that might support SMIC’s production of semiconductors”, the pair said.

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The suggestions from the politicians known as China hawks, public figures or researchers who advocate harsher measures against the country, will not necessarily become government policy. However, their voices represent a sustained hostility in Washington towards China under the rule of the Communist Party, even after US President Joe Biden took office in January.

Last week, the US blacklisted seven Chinese entities involved in supercomputing, including Tianjin-based Phytium Technology, which had reportedly used American EDA tools, barring them from receiving hi-tech exports from US companies or others using US technology to produce chips. The move, made on national-security grounds, showed that Biden is not significantly altering the China policy stance he inherited from his predecessor Donald Trump.

“I think we’re seeing broad continuity between the Biden and Trump administrations when it comes to China and tech,” said Nick Marro, lead analyst for global trade at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “We should expect more friction in US-China tech ties over the foreseeable future. Or, at the very least, I don’t think we can count on the US relaxing many of its toughest restrictions on China anytime soon.”

At a US congressional hearing on Wednesday regarding global threats, a first in more than two years, China’s push to expand its influence via technology was a key topic. Directors from the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency took turns testifying on Beijing’s regional aggression and cyber capabilities.

© Provided by South China Morning Post US President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor chip as he speaks prior to signing an executive order, aimed at addressing a global chip shortage, in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, on February 24. Photo: Reuters

“Given that China is an unparalleled priority for the intelligence community, I will start with highlighting certain aspects of the threat from Beijing,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. She added that China is increasingly “a near-peer competitor challenging the United States in multiple arenas.”

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray said his agency opens a new investigation linked to China every 10 hours.

Along with cybersecurity, competition over the semiconductor supply chain has been a focus of the ongoing China-US tech war. On Monday, Biden met with more than a dozen company CEOs at a White House meeting, where he assured them of government funding in semiconductors and warned of China’s growing presence in the sector.

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Reading from a letter signed by 23 senators and 42 House members, Biden said, “The Chinese Communist Party ‘aggressively plans to reorient and dominate the semiconductor supply chain,’ and it goes into how much money they’re pouring into being able to do that.”

Victor Shih, chair of China studies at the University of California, San Diego, said despite ongoing tensions, moves by the Biden administration signal a more measured approach to China, a shift from sometimes erratic policy shifts seen during the Trump administration.

“If anything, more thought is being put into how the US can engage in ‘extreme competition’ with China than had been the case during the Trump administration,” Shih said. “If China shows good faith effort to uphold its obligations vis-A-vis the (World Trade Organization) and the first phase of the trade agreement with the US, the Biden Administration may well see that as a positive sign for future interaction with China.”

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