Huawei, the Chinese tech giant, has launched a new smartphone that showcases its ability to overcome the US-led sanctions on its chip supply. The Huawei Mate 60 Pro is powered by a Kirin 9000s chip that was made in China by the partly state-owned Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC). This chip is the first to use SMIC’s most advanced 7 nanometre (nm) technology, which was thought to be impossible without access to restricted western equipment.
How Huawei defied the US embargo
The US has imposed several restrictions on Huawei since 2019, accusing it of posing a national security threat due to its ties to the Chinese government. Huawei has been banned from providing 5G network equipment in many countries, including those of the Five Eyes security alliance. It has also been cut off from chipmaking tools essential for producing the most advanced handset models.
Despite being a manufacturer of 5G network equipment, Huawei was previously only able to launch limited batches of actual 5G phones using stockpiled chips. However, the Mate 60 Pro marks a significant achievement for Huawei and China’s chip industry, as it uses a chip that was made in China using a process that was thought to be beyond its capabilities.
The secret behind SMIC’s 7nm chip
SMIC is China’s largest and most advanced chipmaker, but it still lags behind its global rivals such as Taiwan’s TSMC and South Korea’s Samsung. The most advanced chip SMIC had previously been known for making had a larger scale of 14nm, because SMIC was barred by Washington in late 2020 from obtaining the necessary machines from Dutch firm ASML.
ASML is the world’s only supplier of extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) machines, which are used to make chips with 7nm or more advanced processes. EUV is a closely guarded technology that the US is leading the push to keep out of Beijing’s hands.
However, according to TechInsights, an analysis firm, SMIC has managed to produce 7nm chips by tweaking simpler machines that it could still purchase freely from ASML. TechInsights said it believed SMIC had used a process called deep ultraviolet lithography (DUV) with multiple patterning steps to achieve the same result as EUV.
However, this method is more costly and less efficient than EUV, as some research firms have forecast that only 50% or fewer of 7nm chips produced this way would turn out to be usable, versus the industry norm of 90% or more. This would limit the shipments of the resulting smartphones.
The implications of Huawei’s Mate 60 Pro
The launch of Huawei’s Mate 60 Pro has been seen as a symbolic victory for China in its attempts to defy Washington’s sanctions and build a domestic chip ecosystem. The Chinese government has been investing heavily in its chip sector, and is set to launch a new state-backed investment fund that aims to raise about $40bn for its chip industry.
However, some analysts have warned that Huawei’s latest achievement could also trigger a backlash from the US, which could impose even tighter restrictions on China’s access to critical manufacturing technologies. The US Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security could launch an investigation into how SMIC obtained the technology to make 7nm chips.
Moreover, some experts have doubted whether Huawei can sustain its innovation in the long term, as it still relies on foreign suppliers for other components such as memory chips and display panels. Huawei also faces fierce competition from other smartphone makers such as Apple and Samsung, which have more advanced features and wider market share.