March 4, 2024

A man visits a display of semiconductor devices at semiconductor technology trade fair Semicon China, in Shanghai.

Photo: Aly Song (Reuters)

In a clear sign of Beijing’s efforts to speed up the development of its homegrown semiconductor industry amid Washington’s intensifying technology restrictions, China’s imports of chipmaking machines hit a near-record last year—while its chip imports saw their steepest decline on record.

In 2023, China imported nearly $40 billion worth of machines used to make semiconductors. That dollar amount is only second to the value of imports in 2021, which surpassed $41 billion.

Helping drive that growth is imports of specialty chipmaking machines from the Netherlands, home of lithography giant ASML. In November, imports of Dutch lithography systems to China surged over 1,000% as Chinese players scrambled to procure the advanced technology critical to making cutting-edge chips.

Meanwhile, China’s imports of chips fell at their sharpest pace on record last year, slumping to $350 billion and marking two consecutive years of decline. Shipment volume also declined by 11% over the same period, according to Bloomberg.

Semiinsights, a China-based outlet covering the semiconductor industry, noted in an article published last week (link in Chinese) that a possible reason for the drop is that Chinese manufacturers in the preceding two years had stocked up on inventory in anticipation of supply shortages caused by trade restrictions.

Another reason may be that China’s efforts to develop its domestic semiconductor capabilities may be paying off, as the newsletter ChinAI notes this week. But it’s hard to say to what degree China is self-sufficient in chips.

“It is very difficult to measure the self-sufficiency rate in chips,” writes Jeffrey Ding of ChinAI, and assistant professor of political science at George Washington University. “By one metric, it has increased from 16.6% in 2020 to 23.3% in 2023, but that number includes chips made by foreign-funded companies in China (e.g., Samsung’s production base in Xi’an).”

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