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Trump’s China Tech Spat Is About Taking 5G Lead, French CEO Says

Helene Fouquet and Rudy Ruitenberg

(Bloomberg) -- For Paul Boudre, U.S. President Donald Trump’s push against Chinese telecommunications companies is less about espionage than the race for technological supremacy.

Boudre, the chief executive officer of Soitec, a French maker of semiconductor materials that go into 5G equipment, automobiles, cloud computing and IT infrastructure, says Trump’s actions are aimed primarily at allowing American firms to catch up.

“Trump’s kick in the pants for companies is to wake them up and to catch up,” Boudre said in an interview Tuesday in Paris. “Trump is the emissary saying that if nothing is done, we’ll be blown away. That’s why he’s been trying to put a brake on the advances that China has made.”

With the “everything-connected” era well under way, the race for a technological edge is intensifying. Trump has repeated railed against China and its companies, including Huawei Technologies Co., citing industrial espionage and intellectual property theft. He has limited their access to the U.S. market and to American suppliers, while also pressing allies from Japan to The Netherlands to review policies toward the Asian giant.

The executive push and the infrastructure policy are driving U.S. companies like Cisco, Qorvo Inc., Skyworks Solutions to accelerate their research, a move that could allow American players to get new 5G technologies rolling out potentially in 2021, Boudre said.

“Technology has become political today,” he said.

Supply Chains

The U.S. pushed to block the sale of chip manufacturer ASML’s technology to China by sharing a classified intelligence report with the Dutch government, Reuters reported on Monday, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter.

Soitec, which has factories and licenses for producing the substrate for handsets and infrastructure in France, Singapore and China, can provide “China Free” material if requested, Boudre said, adding that no such demands have been made by its clients.

“What’s happened with Trump is a modification of supply chains,” he said. “Huawei won’t rely exclusively anymore on Qorvo, Skyworks, Qualcomm, because there is a risk. So they’ve developed relations with Murata, STMicro and others.”

Developments in the U.S. 5G market this year and next will be a test of whether Trump’s policies were fruitful, Boudre said.

“Clearly, two technologies are now being implemented,” with China’s 5G building on 4G, while the U.S.’s 5G that’s more of a new development called “millimeter wave.” The U.S. technology may hit the broad market in 2021, Boudre said, with Cisco driving the innovation. Qualcomm’s modem chip using millimeter wave technology is likely to hit the market in 2020.

Soitec Rising

While Trump’s moves have roiled trade and supply chains for companies building 5G and other technologies, Soitec has been spared, the executive said.

The company, whose material goes into almost every smartphone in the world, plans to double sales in the next three years, reaching $1 billion in its fiscal year 2022, and sees revenue tripling in the next five years or so.

Founded in the early 1990s in the French Alps, Soitec, which now employs 1,500 people, sits at the heart of the revolution that’s made possible everything from mobile phones, personal assistants like Amazon.com Inc.’s Alexa and Google’s Nest, to 5G antennas and connected devices in cars.

In the automotive sector, where Europe has an edge, Soitec is working with Robert Bosch GmbH, Audi AG, STMicroelectronics NV and others to define future components, Boudre said. In artificial intelligence, he sees a shift of computing power from the cloud to devices lifting demand for Soitec’s materials, which allow chipmakers to combine computing, memory and connectivity on a single chip.

The extent of all that growth will be evident when the company discusses its long-term plans in June, Boudre said.

Soitec’s stock rose 85% in 2019, making it among the top 10 performers of the benchmark SBF120 index.

--With assistance from Caroline Connan and Francine Lacqua.

To contact the reporters on this story: Helene Fouquet in Paris at hfouquet1@bloomberg.net;Rudy Ruitenberg in Paris at rruitenberg@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giles Turner at gturner35@bloomberg.net, Vidya Root

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