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[HONG KONG] China faces an uphill battle in its push to become the global leader in computer chips because of a lack of technological know-how and talent, according to an analysis by Bain & Co.
China is one of the world's largest consumers of semiconductor devices thanks to its manufacturing might, and is planning to spend more than US$100 billion to become also a premier supplier to the planet.
The global consultancy estimates that by 2020, almost 55 per cent of the world's memory, logic and analog chips will flow to or through the country. But the vast majority of the microchips that act as the brains of products like Apple Inc's iPhone are largely imported from companies like Intel Corp and Samsung Electronics Co.
The government in 2014 moved to change this with plans to invest more than US$100 billion and become a leading global player. It's also driven consolidation among domestic suppliers to maximise its investments, including the US$2.8 billion merger of Tsinghua Unigroup Ltd and Wuhan Xinxin Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp announced last month.
China's effort to build a world-leading semiconductor industry is part of a broader effort to wean itself off foreign technology. But financial investment will not be enough to buy leadership of the semiconductor sector, which is worth around US$1 trillion according to Singapore-based Bain partner Kevin Meehan.
The country currently makes just 15 per cent of the semiconductors it consumes, Bain said in a report. And by 2020, the consultancy expects Chinese-based plants to produce just 7 per cent of the world's microchips, barely up from current levels.
"China is coming at it in a pretty smart and intelligent way," he said. "But I don't see a path for them to own leading-edge processor technology and that is the foundation of Intel, the foundation of Samsung's success."
Efforts by Chinese companies to buy rivals with intellectual property in the processor and memory markets have run afoul of regulators around the world. Plans for a US$3.8 billion investment in Western Digital Corp were scrapped amid a US security review and investments in Taiwanese chip companies face regulatory obstacles and have stoked political tension.
"Assuming they can spend it all, the biggest risk is that they end up with a whole bunch of fragmented and weak follower positions," Mr Meehan said.
"There's ways for them to have influence over greater than 10 per cent if they're partnering well, but otherwise I think you're essentially capped there."
Mr Meehan said China's semiconductor makers could eventually learn from partnerships with global giants and become one of the larger suppliers of key components like computer memory.
Both Intel and Qualcomm Inc have agreed to build semiconductor fabrication plants there in partnership with local providers.
"If you take a long view - not five years but decades - then certainly you'd have to believe there's some absorption," he said.
"But people are careful not to put their leading edge IP in China." "I don't see a way to get there without licensing or buying."