Supercomputing: Latest front in high-tech fight between US, China

Washington bans exports to 5 Chinese entities on grounds of national security

WASHINGTON • China's burgeoning supercomputer industry has become the latest target of US trade restrictions as officials banned shipments to four Chinese technology firms and one research institute on the grounds that they threaten American national security.

This latest move in a broadening confrontation over advanced technology between the world's leading economies appeared in a notice to the Federal Register, made public last Friday.

The ban comes after last month's similar move against Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies, which US officials placed on its "Entity List" over claims that it violated sanctions against Iran, among other national security issues.

"The timing here is important because China is really just on the cusp of moving away from US dependence to a certain degree of independence in high-performance computers," Mr Bob Sorensen, vice-president (research) at Hyperion Research, said.

President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to meet this week in Japan during the Group of 20 summit.

The US Commerce Department said it was adding Wuxi Jiangnan Institute of Computing Technology, Sugon, Higon, Chengdu Haiguang Integrated Circuit, and Chengdu Haiguang Microelectronics Technology - along with numerous aliases of the five entities - to the blacklist over concerns about military applications of the supercomputers they are developing.

Wuxi Jiangnan Institute of Computing Technology is owned by the 56th Research Institute of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army of China, the Commerce Department said, adding that "its mission is to support China's military modernisation".

 
 

Sugon, which calls itself the largest maker of supercomputers in Asia, is helping the Chinese military conduct tests on nuclear weapons simulation and hypersonic glide vehicle, said China expert James Mulvenon at defence contractor SOS International. The glide vehicle can deliver nuclear-tipped weapons at speeds impossible to stop with missile defences.

In most cases, the supercomputers rely on a mix of microchips from US manufacturers Intel and Nvidia. By placing Sugon on the list, Washington is effectively cutting it off from the tiny brains it needs to make the billions of calculations required to model weather patterns and support video apps.

Sugon is tiny compared with the previously blacklisted Huawei, but its ban is an especially bitter pill for Beijing to swallow, as its supercomputers form the core of some of the Chinese government's most sensitive and important systems, including those in electric grid and telecommunications. It also makes data centres for companies such as e-commerce giant JD.com.

Also banned is Higon, which the Commerce Department identified as a Sugon subsidiary and partners with the US chip maker Advanced Micro Device.

The notice posted to the Federal Register said the research institute and the four firms "have been determined by the US government to be acting contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States."

China's efforts to develop its own supercomputing capability has been an area of particular concern for the Pentagon, which fears that the Chinese military will use it to test and develop nuclear weapons and a wide range of defence applications, such as fighter jets, submarines and missiles.

The blacklisting "will absolutely hobble an important technology initiative - supercomputers", Mr Mulvenon said.

But Mr Sorensen disagreed, saying he believes that while the move will set China back, "it will not halt or deter them in the long term".

Sugon is tiny compared with the previously blacklisted Huawei, but its ban is an especially bitter pill for Beijing to swallow, as its supercomputers form the core of some of the Chinese government's most sensitive and important systems, including those in electric grid and telecommunications.

The move is also likely to impact American chipmakers such as Intel and Nvidia, and experts worry the US action could add even more motivation for the Chinese to bolster its own technology industry.

"In the short term, we are hurting the US companies, and in the long term, we are helping the Chinese advance more rapidly," said computer engineering professor Tarek El-Ghazawi at George Washington University, who specialises in supercomputers. "I see this as a lose-lose for us."

China and the US have over the past decade engaged in a fierce rivalry for the top spot in supercomputer performance. Some of the Chinese entities targeted by the US action this week are allegedly developing "exascale" computers that are roughly eight to 10 times faster than the best available now, capable of performing a quintillion calculations per second.

 

Mr Robert Knake, a White House cyber-security policy expert in the Obama administration, said it is not clear whether the motivation for the latest US action comes from national security concerns or the ongoing trade war with China.

"If Trump gets the trade deal he wants from China, does he lift the trade restrictions?" Mr Knake, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wondered.

The latest ban comes as China and the US are locked in a trade war that has seen both countries impose tariffs on billions of dollars worth of imports from each other.

WASHINGTON POST, NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2019, with the headline 'Supercomputing: Latest front in high-tech fight between US, China'. Print Edition | Subscribe