New Huawei smartphone includes advanced China-made chip, surprising analysts

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Huawei has announced a new smartphone using a chip that analysts previously thought impossible to make because of the ban on the firm using Western technology.

The Huawei Mate 60 Pro smartphone was expected to include a 5G chip from HiSilicon, the Kirin 9000s. But analysis firm TechInsights took a closer look at the chip and found evidence of a 7nm process built by Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC) – a partially state-owned chipmaking company in China.

It said the discovery is a milestone in China’s chipmaking capabilities, which have long trailed the West.

Last month, Huawei was accused of building a series of secret chipmaking facilities across China, under the names of other companies, to help the technology company bypass US sanctions.

The Chinese tech firm reportedly moved into chip production last year and was receiving an estimated $30bn (£23.7bn) in state funding from the government.

It is believed that China still does not have access to extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography  tools – a cutting-edge manufacturing process that is required to build the most advanced chips. Dutch firm ASML Holding is the only company that produces and sells EUV systems for chip production, targeting 5nm and 3nm process nodes.

The most advanced chips commercially available are built on the 3nm process by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC). But TSMC is very limited by the number of chips it can produce, and Apple has reserved the firm’s entire manufacturing capacity for now.

In 2019, Huawei had severe restrictions imposed upon it by US President Donald Trump over concerns that its technology could be used by the Chinese government for espionage. The restrictions prevented it from working with unlicensed US companies and cut off its access to technology with US origins, such as high-end silicon chips manufactured using extreme-UV etching machinery.

“Discovering a Kirin chip using SMIC’s 7nm (N+2) foundry process in the new Huawei Mate 60 Pro smartphone demonstrates the technical progress China’s semiconductor industry has been able to make without EUV lithography tools,” said Dan Hutcheson, vice-chair of TechInsights.

“The difficulty of this achievement also shows the resilience of the country’s chip technological ability. At the same time, it is a great geopolitical challenge to the countries who have sought to restrict its access to critical manufacturing technologies. The result may likely be even greater restrictions than what exist today.”

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