Apple's iPhone 15 shows US does not understand own tech war on China
Apple's iPhone 15 pro was immediately compared after its debut by tech enthusiasts and popular Western online tech reviewers to Chinese Huawei Mate 60 Pro.
Apple introduced its latest iPhone model in late September—a moment eagerly awaited by tech enthusiasts globally. This annual event has been a hallmark since the American tech giant revolutionized the smartphone market over a decade ago.
This year's device, touted as the pinnacle of mobile technology, featured the A17 Pro in the iPhone 15 Pro models; the first-ever 3nm chip to be used in a mobile phone, which was produced by Taiwan's renowned Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing TSMC.
With its immense green note resources, from vast financial reserves to a privileged position in attracting private investments as a US entity, Apple's edge lies in its unparalleled access to major global markets and the latest technologies. In addition to strategic partnerships with top-tier tech giants... It's no wonder Apple has once again unveiled a groundbreaking product.
Yet, soon after the iPhone's release, global discussions shifted. Comparisons arose between Apple's latest offering and a competitor introduced just weeks prior: the Chinese Huawei Mate 60 Pro, a smartphone powered by an entirely domestically-produced 7nm processor—the Kirin 9000S 5G chip.
The unveiling, which came on the same day as the US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo landed in Beijing on September 12, underscored a pivotal revelation: rather than stunting China's technological evolution, US sanctions seemed to have catalyzed its drive for innovation, pushing the nation and its corporations towards greater resilience and self-reliance in the tech sector.
Despite China's marketing constraints due to sanctions and the shadow of an aggressive Western media campaign, Huawei's announcment released global shockwaves. The iPhone, while receiving its expected share of attention, found itself paralleled with Huawei's innovation.
Tech enthusiasts and popular online tech reviewers around the world immediatly took social media platforms to put the two devices side by side and try to expand on their similarities and contrasts.
That both brands stand shoulder to shoulder in global discourse marks a significant stride for Huawei - a company that in some aspects became the embodiment of US policies and efforts to leash its international allies to isolate China’s technology over alleged security concerns.
Just two months before, such an event would have been deemed inconceivable, especially for those swayed by Western narratives and the assumptions of the elite.
In May 2019, the United States added China’s Huawei to a trade blacklist, claiming national security threats. This move required both American and international suppliers working with Huawei to obtain a special license for shipments—a license seldom approved, if ever.
China’s plans in the semiconductor space were to manufacture its own 28nm chips by the end of 2021 and 20nm chips by early 2023.
However, these ambitions were momentarily thwarted by the US' aggressive curbs. In a bid to further stifle Beijing's semiconductor industry, the administration of President Joe Biden imposed in October 2022 severe sanctions to curtail China's access to advanced semiconductor technology.
These measures are specifically intended to limit China's chipmaking advancements to 14 nm. Yet, Washington was in for an unexpected turn of events.
In a short, yet concise, text, Bloomberg described the reality from a Western perspective:
“Huawei’s making a comeback. The Chinese tech firm appears to have scored a major win with its latest smartphone, sparking a flurry of speculation over whether Beijing is finally making some headway in circumventing US attempts to contain its tech ambitions.
That certainly seemed to be the case when we took apart Huawei’s new Mate 60 Pro, finding it capable of 5G speeds seen in devices like the latest iPhones. How times have changed for a company whose dominant smartphone business was hit hard by US prohibitions on working with American companies.”
Worst fears materialize
Earlier, specialists believed that limiting the tech and equipment transfer from the US to China would hinder China's advancement in the chip industry, potentially setting them back significantly compared to the US.
However, Huawei’s recent unveiling of a 5G device with 7nm technology shows that Western regulators have underestimated the depth of semiconductor manufacturing dimensions, and even China’s highly innovative and robust tech industry. They seemingly hoped to cripple the Chinese progress through strict export control regulations, thinking this would completely halt tech flow.
The reactions from US top officials to Huawei's new device ranged from cautious to notably irritated.
Notably, American legislators shocked by the event did not call for enhancing the US' domestic investments or encouraging local innovation; instead, many top politicians called for tighter constraints on China. For many in the United States, the realization that a heavily restricted Chinese firm could reach such technological heights was like witnessing their worst fears materialize.
For instance, Raimondo’s first remark was expressing her “concern” about this development and emphasized that Washington is doing everything in its power to restrict China's tech growth, mainly by limiting access to advanced chip-making tools and software and pressing other countries to do the same.
Meanwhile, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Representative Michael McCaul, along with other Republican members, wrote a letter to the Bureau of Industry and Security BIS, calling it out for its “inability to effectively write and enforce export control rules against violators, especially China.”
The letter finishes by demanding a full economic blockade of Huawei and SMIC, as well as criminal prosecutions of their executives.
The US’ response to China's breakthroughs in the tech industry reflects above all else sentiment of exceptionalism entrenched in the American character. This mindset, wherein the US perceives itself as the primary beacon of innovation and advancement, blinded them to the Chinese capabilities and the new reality where Americans are no longer sole pioneers of scientific fields.
These reactions were also anchored in the belief of inherent superiority and dominance. This perspective further reveals how Washington builds its policies and plans based on a presumption of unparalleled supremacy.
Not a Chinese success, but a US failure
It was a strategic mistake of policymakers and pundits who underestimated China’s perseverance in pursuing trial-and-error methods and well-known competence in acquiring talent, technology, and tools through back channels.
In the current political-technological landscape, Huawei’s 7nm is not just a breakthrough for the country's industry-long reliance on foreign components but also exposes US determination to assume superiority over China and Washington's ego-driven arrogance.
Suggesting that China’s success was merely due to its ability to bypass US sanctions is naïve, to say the least, but for propagandists, it aims to undermine any Chinese achievement and portray it simply as a positive blip in its limited capabilities. However, it also reveals the actual American strategy to compete with Beijing.
First: Washington’s only option to push back China’s growth is through sanctions, which in turn suggests that without these measures, and in a fair brain competition, the Chinese industry will outperform its US counterpart.
Second: Attribute China’s breakthroughs to American shortcomings, which in turn serves to portray the Asian giant as a constrained follower of US progression.
Third: To falsely promote the idea that the main driver behind any advancement China makes in the tech sector, the US – directly or not – has a hand in it.
Competition metrics: flawed and arrogant
The main Western argument today is not that sanctions will ensure China will never make technological progress, rather, they will slow down the Asian giant and give the West a time-scaled advantage.
With the October 2022 export prohibitions, the United States government announced its intent to cripple China’s ability to produce, or even purchase, the highest-end chips.
US export controls were initially referred to when introduced as the “sliding scale” approach, characterized by a constant US capabilities advantage relative to China.
However, in September 2022, the Biden administration changed course. In an address to the Special Competitive Studies Project, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan declared that the sliding scale policy for semiconductors no longer matched the strategic environment—in its place, the United States would adopt a policy to “maintain as large of a lead as possible.”
Sullivan's remarks, reflecting Washington's plans to target China's advancement, are flawed in a number of ways, but most importantly, its scale and metrics to measure the race.
The rebranding of the American plan can only indicate that Washington is aware that the rise of Chinese capabilities in the tech sector is not exponential, and will not be in parallel with the pace of that of the United States. Rather, US officials might wake up one day and find that Beijing has announced a technological leap that, not only Washington missed on its tech-race time chart, but also in the entire plan layout it formulated to subdue China.