The mainland wants to expand its role as a world producer of semiconductors, with demand soaring and chip fabrication plants sprouting up throughout the country. Government leaders consider the need critical as the mainland imports more than 90 per cent of the semiconductors it consumes for the manufacture of electronics products, including the central processing unit chips used in personal computers. Beijing is finding itself at loggerheads, however, with the United States Government, which has vowed to keep hi-tech products out of China's reach. Whether it succeeds may depend on the ability of multinational chip-producers, such as NEC and Motorola, to convince Washington to change its policy. Most mainland-produced chips are between one and two microns, in terms of the line-width etched on to the silicon. This puts the mainland 10 to 15 years behind the most advanced processes. A smaller micron measurement denotes a faster, more advanced chip. Under US policy, export and technology licences for the mainland are denied for chip fabrication equipment that can produce semiconductors using processes below 0.5 micron. State-of-the-art microprocessors used in powerful workstations and supercomputers typically are made on the .35- or .25-micron process. Leading chip-maker Intel, for example, makes its fastest processors on the .25-micron process, and plans to shift to 0.18 micron by next year. In an attempt to encourage more advanced fabrication technology, Beijing earlier this year reinstituted tariff waivers for the import of capital equipment used in hi-tech sectors, including fabrication gear that can produce line-widths at or below 0.35 micron. Companies that make chip fabrication equipment - mostly based in the US and Japan - consider the mainland an attractive market, especially since both domestic chip demand and chip production are down due to the Asia-wide recession. However, the US is understood to be applying pressure on Japan to prevent the export of 0.25-micron chip equipment to the mainland. The US export restrictions are aimed at limiting the mainland's access to advanced technology that could be used to develop missiles and nuclear weapons. Last year, the US also imposed tighter controls on mainland access to powerful computers. Many of the world's key chip companies, including Intel, have mainland plants that assemble and test semiconductors. Intel opened its Shanghai-based flash-memory plant in May, while French company STMicroelectronics inaugurated its semiconductor assembly and test plant, and design and development centre, in Shenzhen in June. Projects on tap include a US$1 billion joint-venture fabrication plant by Japanese company NEC, due to begin operations next year. Company officials anticipate the fabrication facility will be able to produce chips using the .35-micron process by 2000. US-based Motorola also is spending $1.5 billion on a 'superfab' in Tianjin that will produce - among other things - .35-micron semiconductors by 2000, published reports say. NEC and Motorola were given the go-ahead from the US to import .35-micron fabrication equipment due to their stature in the industry. The companies are said to be anticipating a switch to .25-micron processes, once Washington becomes familiar with their operations. The mainland also can count on the lobbying efforts of two US-based industry groups, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) and the Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International (Semi). According to sources quoted by Electronic Buyers News, SIA and Semi are urging the relaxation of US export equipment controls. Beijing's efforts to be recognised in the global semiconductor sector have caused authorities to seek membership in the World Semiconductor Council (WSC). The council advocates free trade of chip products and promotes international business-to-business contacts. The mainland had been invited to the WSC's annual meeting in April next year, according to Daryl Hatano, vice-president of international trade for SIA, a founding member of the council. It could become a council member by next year, but it first would need to drop taxes on all imported chips. WSC member countries - the US, Japan, Europe and South Korea - agree not to impose duties on chip imports. 'China has not yet formally committed to eliminating its semiconductor tariffs on an expeditious basis,' Mr Hatano said.