U.S. officials are blocking technology exports to facilities in China associated with the world’s fastest supercomputer, a blow to Intel Corp. and other hardware suppliers that adds to the list of tech tensions between the two countries.

Four technical centers in China associated with the massive computer known as Tianhe-2 were placed on a U.S. government list of entities determined to be acting contrary to U.S. national security or foreign-policy interests.

The system, which is powered by two kinds of Intel microprocessor chips, and an earlier system called Tianhe-1A “are believed to be used in nuclear explosive activities,” according to a notice dated Feb. 18 and posted by the U.S. Commerce Department.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, three of the centers and Chinese computer maker Inspur Group Co., which helped build the machine, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. The National Supercomputing Center in Guangzhou said it didn’t immediately have a comment. Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy said the chip maker is in compliance with the law. Designers of the Tianhe-2—or the Milky Way-2 in English—have said it is mostly used for scientific projects like genome research.

The blockage comes at a time when U.S. technology companies are grappling with Beijing’s proposed new restrictions on their ability to do business in the vast China market amid rising concerns there over cybersecurity. The companies are protesting China’s new banking-technology procurement rules as well as a proposed counterterrorism law that they say are overly invasive and involve handing over sensitive material. The Obama administration has called on Beijing to hold back on those efforts.

Supercomputers—room-sized systems that yoke together large numbers of processor chips—are often used in weapons research, code breaking, weather forecasting and many scientific disciplines. The U.S. has long dominated the field, which has become a symbol for national competitiveness in technology.

The Tianhe-2 system in 2013 vaulted to the top of a twice-yearly ranking of supercomputers, based on its performance on a series of standard computing tests. As of November, the machine boasted Intel chips with a total of 3.12 million calculating engines, according to the site Top500.org.

The U.S. government action effectively blocks Intel and others from selling newer chips to update the system. They must seek an export license to sell technology to be used by the four Chinese sites. Such licenses are “usually subject to a policy of denial,” according to the Commerce Department notice.

Intel has dealt with Inspur rather than directly to the Chinese centers, said Mr. Mulloy, the Intel spokesman. He said the company was informed in August by the Commerce Department that an export license would be approved to supply chips associated with previously disclosed supercomputer projects associated with Inspur.

“Intel complied with the notification and applied for the license, which was denied,” Mr. Mulloy said.

Despite the potential use of supercomputers for military applications, governments have rarely applied export restrictions to the technology. One potential reason is that most of components used in such systems are widely available around the world and their shipments would be hard to stop.

China significantly lags behind the U.S. in chip design, though the government has been bankrolling research to improve the capabilities of local chip makers.

Horst Simon, a supercomputer expert and deputy director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said the U.S. restrictions in the long run will help Chinese chip makers and hurt U.S. companies.

“The Chinese will be more incentivized to develop their own technology, and U.S. manufacturers will be seen as less reliable and potentially not able to satisfy foreign orders,” Mr. Simon said.

The U.S. government restrictions list national supercomputing centers in the cities of Changsha, Guangzhou and Tianjin, as well as the National University of Defense Technology in Changsha.

News of the government restrictions was reported earlier by the website VR World.

By: Don Clark, for The Wall Street Journal, April 9 2015

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