The Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP), which deals with the development of nuclear weapons, was included in the US sanctions list back in 1997, but since at least 2020 it has managed to obtain American chips, which it should not have access to would have. The Wall Street Journal reports at least 12 cases, with many of the chips being purchased by the academy’s Computational Fluid Dynamics Lab, which also simulates nuclear explosions.
According to the publication, such purchases circumvent restrictions imposed by the United States and are intended to prevent foreign powers from using American products in nuclear research. The academy is one of the first Chinese structures to be included in the sanctions lists. In particular, she created the first hydrogen bomb in China. A journalistic investigation revealed that of the scientific papers published by CAEP in the last 10 years, at least 34 mention the use of American semiconductors in research for one purpose or another, and at least seven research cases can be linked to nuclear weapons.
Last October, the US expanded its list of export restrictions on China to prevent geopolitical rivals from getting cutting-edge AI systems and supercomputers. However, the solutions used are in most cases widely used on the international market. NVIDIA said CAEP mainly uses general-purpose chips that are almost impossible to control the movement of the planet. Intel also confirmed that it is complying with the imposed restrictions and that its customers are, in theory, obliged to do so. Experts agree that the movement of chips is almost impossible to track, given that China accounted for more than a third of the total $556 billion in chip purchases in 2021 alone.
The US Department of Commerce expanded restrictions on CAEP in June 2020, blacklisting 10 companies owned or operated by the Academy and 17 proxy companies used to purchase essential American components.
However, the Chinese military and its suppliers have so far circumvented the sanctions by purchasing components through shell structures and other means. Also, many US-designed chips are manufactured outside the US, making export controls more difficult. In addition to the actual purchase of chips, other types of goods and services are also put up for bid, such as the purchase and maintenance of boards developed by Cadence Design Systems, Inc., although Cadence itself claims to strictly comply with the sanctions regime. According to journalists, tenders are mainly conducted by small Chinese companies.
Note that American companies sometimes release special versions of their products for China. For example, in November, NVIDIA announced that it would release the A800 accelerator – a special version of the A100 accelerator with limited functionality specifically for China. And the same CAEP is very interested in these and other models.
According to the Wall Street Journal, citing the Pentagon, China now has about 400 nuclear warheads, but by 2035 their number is expected to grow to about 1,500.
Some of the CAEP work reviewed by reporters relates to inertial thermonuclear fusion (ICF), which uses high-power lasers to power processes that mimic small-scale fusion reactions. Among other things, the use of American semiconductors to optimize the use of such devices and the use of chips in other processes was described. In conditions where nuclear tests are almost not carried out in the world due to international agreements, their substitutes are extremely important for the nuclear powers.
According to experts, in order for the policy of export restrictions to be effective, it is necessary to stop selling components to dealers if the end users are unknown. However, experts admit that it will be extremely difficult to limit sales of semiconductors. But the US is trying.