But not in the way most people think.
Sun Tzu, who wrote “The Art of War” roughly 2500 years ago, distilled many military strategies that are studied by both military and business leaders everywhere. One of the more well-known psychological warfare tactics he espoused is called 围三阙一 (pronounced: wei san que yi).
In essence, it means when you are besieging a city or a castle, the best way to defeat your enemy while incurring the least amount of cost is to siege three sides but leave one opening. If all four sides are sealed off, your enemy would quickly grow more desperate and determined to fight back. With an opening available, your enemy would waver between fight and escape, making them either easier to defeat by ambush when they try to escape or more susceptible to surrender when there’s hope to stay alive.
This tactic is what AI entrepreneurs in China fear the most when it comes to how US technology sanctions would hurt their dreams and ambitions. The founder and CEO of Zhipu AI, Zhang Peng, articulated this view in an interview last month. Others have shared the same view in private. (Zhipu AI is a Tsinghua University spinout foundation AI model unicorn backed by Alibaba, Tencent, HongShan, Hillhouse, Xiaomi, Meituan, and many others. It is often considered the Chinese startup closest to OpenAI, given its deep academic roots and commitment to developing AGI.)
One of the unintended, second-order consequences of the expanded US AI chips sanctions instituted in early October may be that Zhang Peng and his fellow entrepreneurs in China will have less to fear about this worst case scenario. The sanctions may have become so stringent that it is akin to a complete, four-sided siege with no opening left. Evidence of this is showing up in just how quickly Nvidia’s China business is shrinking.
Nvidia’s China Sacrifice
Nvidia reported its Q3 earnings right before the US Thanksgiving holidays. The main storyline was that its China business, which accounts for 20-25% of its total revenue, may soon disappear. (Fabricated Knowledge has a good summary of the earnings main takeaways.)
In its effort to comply with the new round of US sanctions while still pursuing one of its largest markets, Nvidia is once again developing alternative products just for the China market. However, the key one that’s most relevant to generative AI, the H20 – a lower-performing, more compliant alternative to its H200 series that may perform better than its H100 chips according to SemiAnalysis – is delayed until Q1 of 2024.
It’s hard to predict how well the H20 will sell when it becomes available. What does seem clear is that as these sanctions become more strict, the appetite for Chinese firms to throw money at US-designed chips, even if they are compliant, is shrinking, because the specter of more strict sanctions is now always on the horizon.
That appetite did exist not that long ago. There was a striving “black market” for all kinds of banned or soon-to-be-banned Nvidia chips earlier this year, according to ChinaTalk. Stockpiling A800s and H800s, the once-upon-a-time China-compliant alternatives to the A100 and H100 series, has been an important survival strategy for both big firms, like Tencent and Baidu, as well as startups like 01.ai. In fact, Tencent proactively shared its stockpiling of Nvidia chips on its most recent earnings call, which it claimed would be enough to keep developing its own foundation AI model, Hunyuan, for the next two years. Baidu more or less offered the same assurance during its own earnings call a few days later.
The strategic “opening” that was leading Chinese firms to still drink out of the Nvidia well, which would’ve been a correct application of Sun Tzu’s tactic, is closing. Rather than a total siege to choke off China from all US-made options, intentionally and strategically leaving an opening would’ve served America’s geopolitical strategy better. It would’ve been the worst nightmare in the long-term for every AI builder in China. Maybe the H20 could still be that opening. But it’s looking unlikely. (Update: one day after this post was published, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo spoke at the Reagan National Defense Forum and explicitly called out Nvidia’s new product modification as “not productive.” Looks like any semblance of an “opening” has closed.)
After this current phase of stockpiling is done, Nvidia’s China business will become a sacrificial lamb. The beneficiary of all this is, of course, Huawei.
Consolidation Around Huawei
The desperation and determination bred from this full-siege technology sanction is embodied in Huawei. This is not to say that Huawei’s own AI chips, the Ascend series, is close to where Nvidia’s products are right now, but simply that Huawei has become the only game in town. There is no more wavering between Huawei and Nvidia.
This direction is starting to show up per Baidu’s recently reported order of Huawei Ascend chips. Baidu buying Huawei chips is remarkable, because Baidu has had its own semiconductor R&D division for a long time, which would’ve been a competitor to Huawei’s chips if US sanctions weren’t an issue. Abandoning its own home-grown division in favor of Huawei’s product is an implicit recognition that domestic competition on critical, choke point technologies is a waste of national resources. Every firm must now consolidate behind the designated national champion for the good of the country.
Huawei is not only receiving implicit support from the purchase orders of would-be domestic competitors. Per Bloomberg’s long piece on the company, it is receiving plenty of explicit subsidies from multiple layers of government, from the usual land and tax breaks, to investments in many smaller suppliers in a vast ecosystem all geared to make Huawei, and China, more self-sufficient.
Huawei is also doing some smart things to expand its reach and surface area in competition with Nvidia. It recently became a Premier Member of the PyTorch Foundation in order to steward the PyTorch stack, an open source development stack initially out of Meta that competes with Nvidia’s CUDA, to work better with its Ascend chips.
Huawei’s advancement, showcased in its Mate 60 Pro smartphone, was the big surprise development that catalyzed much of the October expanded sanctions. Was this really a surprise though? Not according to Jensen Huang, Nvidia’s co-founder and CEO, who said during his interview at the New York Times DealBook Summit that “I don’t think anyone in the industry was surprised…”:
When asked about the new round of US sanctions that are throttling Nvidia’s China business, Huang was on message, compliant, and paid due respect to the need to balance business growth with national security concerns. But his tone and demeanor was no doubt resigned, ending his answer with “what can you do?” followed by a shrug.
His resignation was understandable. Nvidia is not getting a dime of subsidy from the US government, while it kills one of its largest markets and billions in revenue. And these changes, while painful to China in the short-term, may end up undermining the US geopolitical and strategic positioning in the long-term.
If Nvidia has a somewhat restricted but still viable business in China, the US can predictably know how far behind China’s AI computing power is by simply tracking what products are getting sold there – the intentional “opening”. If Nvidia no longer has a viable business there, with the whole market consolidating around the black box of Huawei, there will only be more, unpleasant surprises in the future.
To truly advance US long-term interests vis-a-vis China, it may serve folks in DC well to brush up on some Sun Tzu.
10月初美国扩大AI芯片制裁的一个意外的二阶后果可能是，张鹏和其他中国的企业家同行将不必担心被 “围三阙一” 了。制裁可能已严格到了四面围攻的程度，而没有留下任何出口。这一现象正在英伟达的中国业务迅速下滑的速度中显现出来。
一直把中国公司引向英伟达这个水井中继续汲水的战略“出口”，本是 “围三阙一” 策略的正确运用，但现在出口正在关闭。与其完全围困以切断中国与所有美国芯片产品，有意识和战略性地留下一个出口本来对美国的地缘政治战略和定位更有力。这也是在中国每位从事AI事业人士的噩梦。也许H20还是个出口，但可能性越来越小。
这一趋势已开始显现，如最近有报道称百度开始给华为昇腾系列芯片下订单。百度购买华为芯片很值得关注，因为百度长期拥有自己的半导体研发部门，如果不是美国的制裁，它本可以成为华为芯片的竞争对手。放弃自研项目转而支持华为的产品，这背后的暗示就是：在关键的、“卡脖子”的技术上的国内竞争是对国家资源的浪费。每个公司现在都必须围绕指定的 “国家队” 整合，以利于国家的宏观利益。
华为的发展，在其Mate 60 Pro智能手机中淋漓尽致，也刺激了美国政府因而在10月份扩大制裁的范围。但一发展真是个惊讶吗？据英伟达联合创始人兼CEO黄仁勋在《纽约时报DealBook峰会》上接受采访时的说法，“我不认为业内任何人感到了惊讶……”：
如果英伟达在中国仍可以保持一些业务，又能合规，美国政府可以通过跟踪那里销售的产品来更准确地了解中国AI算力落后多远 — 故意留下“开口”的好处。如果英伟达在中国的业务基本消失，整个市场围绕华为这个黑匣子整合，未来只会有更多的“惊喜”。