The Biden administration placed seven Chinese firms and government labs under U.S. export controls Thursday for their involvement in China’s effort to build supercomputers that help develop nuclear and other advanced military weapons.
All seven are involved in Beijing’s initiative to build or use supercomputers, including exascale computers, capable of use in development of modern weapons systems, Commerce Department officials said. An exascale computer — the next frontier in high- performance computing — can handle a million trillion calculations per second.
That’s the sort of speed necessary to more accurately model the heat and drag on hypersonic vehicles, a field of advanced weapons research in which the Chinese military is already engaged, using its current generation of supercomputers.
The move makes good on an effort begun under the Trump administration to add the entities to a Commerce Department trade blacklist known as the “Entity List.” The previous administration ran out of time, leaving the package up to its successor to approve.
The listing of the firms and labs means they may not use U.S.-origin technology without a Commerce Department license, which is very difficult to obtain.
“These are parties that are acting in ways that are contrary to our national security interests,” said a senior agency official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity. “This is really about not having U.S. items contribute to China’s advancement of its military capabilities.”
Speaking broadly Wednesday about Biden administration trade policy toward China, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said, “What we do on offense is more important than what we do on defense.”
The designated entities include three semiconductor firms: Tianjin Phytium Information Technology (or Phytium), Shanghai High-Performance Integrated Circuit Design Center and Sunway Microelectronics.
The trio have links to the People’s Liberation Army. Phytium microprocessors have been used for the supercomputer at China’s largest aerodynamics research complex, which is conducting hypersonics weapons research.
The other four entities are the National Supercomputing Center Jinan, the National Supercomputing Center Shenzhen, the National Supercomputing Center Wuxi and the National Supercomputing Center Zhengzhou.
“These computers have plenty of legitimate civilian uses, but also are very important for weapons design, particularly advanced weapons design, nuclear weapons, cyber, missiles and even hypersonics,” the official said.
The Commerce Department began sanctioning entities linked to Chinese military high-performance computing in 2015 under the Obama administration. That year, for example, it placed the National University of Defense Technology and the National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin — both PLA institutions — on the Entity List. Both are closely linked to Phytium, which on Wednesday officially renamed itself Feiteng Information Technology Co., Ltd.