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The U.S., China And The Semiconductor Industry

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Chinese trade negotiators have been in Washington this week. They're working toward a deal that President Trump is promoting.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Could be one of the - I guess it is, if you think about it - the biggest deal ever made. There can't be a deal like this - no matter where you look, there can't be a deal like this. This is - this is the granddaddy of them all.

INSKEEP: The U.S. wants a more open Chinese economy and more protections from forced technology transfer and technology theft. If a deal achieves that, it would mark off one concern on the checklist of a big U.S. technology company - though only one.

Micron makes semiconductors. Those are the memory chips inside computers and cellphones and cars and so much else. Sanjay Mehrotra is CEO and also head of a semiconductor makers' association. He's been in Washington this week asking for help for the industry, and his company has been suing a Chinese competitor for theft of trade secrets.

What suggests that they might be a real threat to you?

SANJAY MEHROTRA: You know, barriers to entry within semiconductors are pretty high. But of course, that does not mean that you discount any potential competition. China is certainly investing a lot in technologies related to semiconductors. It's not about worrying about competition. It's, you know, making sure that competition plays by fair rule, there's a level playing field. I think those are the important things.

INSKEEP: So how is the United States government doing it, supporting your industry?

MEHROTRA: One of the important things is making sure that there is intellectual property protection, trade secret protection. So these are the kind of things that U.S. government certainly - you know, as part of its negotiations with China, this is one of the topics that U.S. government certainly is focused on.

INSKEEP: You are also supportive of more money for federal research. Is that correct? What do you need research on?

MEHROTRA: You know, the semiconductor industry has advanced over the years, primarily based on breakthrough research that has occurred here at American universities supported by the government agencies and certainly in strong collaboration with the industry, as well. And if you look at over the course of last several years, the U.S. investment in advanced research and development has declined.

So it's important that, in a backdrop where other nations are investing more, that U.S. continues to invest in fundamental research that will maintain the leadership of U.S. within the global semiconductor ecosystem.

INSKEEP: So Sanjay Mehrotra of Micron wants help with trade and help with research, but there is something else his industry wants. He notes that in many fields of science and engineering, a majority of graduate students in U.S. universities come from abroad. The industry wants it to be easier for them to gain green cards, permanent residency in the United States.

MEHROTRA: We want those students to stay. You know, I came to the U.S. 40 years ago as a student - as a foreign student. And at that time, the foreign students actually - you know, the U.S. was the best option for them. Today the foreign students can go back to other countries. And it's important that we have a system...

INSKEEP: To compete for...

MEHROTRA: ...An environment that we can - the talent at - from the top U.S. universities, we are able to keep that talent here. So I think relaxing the limits in terms of green card for foreign graduates from U.S. universities, as well as the ability to attract talent from other parts of the world, is important.

INSKEEP: You're on the same side as the Trump administration when it comes to protecting intellectual property. I think they're on the opposite side of you on this question, aren't they?

MEHROTRA: SIA definitely would want that we relax the regulations in terms of the caps on the green cards.

INSKEEP: Sanjay Mehrotra is the CEO of Micron Technology and chair of the Semiconductor Industry Association. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.