China semiconductor imports decline slightly in April, but global chip sales continue to boom

·4-min read

Semiconductor imports by China in April declined slightly from an all-time high last month, according to the latest figures released by the country’s customs authorities, as supply constraints continue to disrupt major industries around the globe.

China imported 54.7 billion semiconductor units in April, worth US$33.1 billion, according to data released by the General Administration of Customs on Friday. It was a 7 per cent fall from the previous month, when the country imported 58.9 billion semiconductor units worth US$35.9 billion. However, imports for the month were up 23 per cent year on year, from 44.4 billion units worth US$27 billion.

China’s semiconductor imports are also up 30.8 per cent so far this year compared with the same period last year, with shipments reaching 210 billion units, worth US$126 billion, in the first four months.

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Why semiconductors are important in the US-China tech war

Despite a global semiconductor shortage that has curbed output in the automotive, smartphone, computer, and home appliance industries, research firm IDC continues to see strong growth in sales because demand for cloud technologies and data services remains unchanged.

Global semiconductor revenue grew 10.8 per cent in 2020 to US$464 billion, and growth is expected to accelerate this year despite market shortages as chip suppliers frantically try to keep up with demand, according to a note released on Thursday by IDC. The firm projects the semiconductor market will reach US$522 billion in 2021, up 12.5 per cent year over year. It also anticipates robust growth in semiconductors for consumer, computing, 5G and automotive applications.

“Overall, the semiconductor industry remains on track to deliver another strong year of growth as the super cycle that began at the end of 2019 strengthens this year,” said Mario Morales, programme vice-president for semiconductors at IDC. “The markets remain narrowly focused on shortages across specific sectors of the supply chain, but what is more important to emphasise is how critical semiconductors are to every major system category and … that remains unabated.”

However, supply constraints are expected to continue throughout the year.

The industry’s first hint of trouble came in spring of last year, when it became clear Covid-19 was turning into a pandemic. Existing chip inventories kept new electronics flowing, but eventually semiconductor shortages started to hit the carmakers, which had cancelled orders in anticipation of a slowdown in demand. The impact is now being felt across the board.

“Much like a traffic jam and the ripple effect, a disruption in the semiconductor supply chain operating close to capacity will impact across the supply chain,” IDC said. “The industry will continue to struggle to rebalance across different industry segments, while investment in capacity now will improve the industry’s resiliency in a few years.”

Everything you need to know about the US-China tech war

In March, Beijing decided to waive levies on imported semiconductor parts and materials until 2030, as the world’s second-largest economy doubled down on efforts to turbocharge integrated circuit (IC) development amid the US-China tech war.

The country plans to use more chips designed and produced by domestic semiconductor companies by 2025 to mitigate supply chain risks from geopolitical tensions.

The US has also been looking for ways to address the chip shortfall. In Washington last month, President Joe Biden met online with more than a dozen CEOs of major US companies, assuring them of bipartisan support for his proposed US$50 billion in funding for semiconductor manufacturing and research. It is also part of an effort to reorient the global semiconductor supply chain, which has become heavily reliant on production in Asia.

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