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US pressures Asian allies to join crusade against Chinese chipmakers

American ambassador to Japan wants a unified front against the Middle Kingdom

US efforts to starve China's semiconductor and tech industry of chips has entered a new phase: pressuring its allies to join its cause.

Speaking with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida Sunday, US ambassador Rahm Emanuel emphasized the importance of a unified front restricting semiconductor exports to China, Bloomberg reports.

The talks come days before President Joe Biden is scheduled to meet with Kishida during a summit on Friday. While the two countries are expected to sign a joint statement regarding security issues, plans to restrict access to Japan's chip industry is still up in the air, Emanuel told Bloomberg.

While nowhere as big a player as it once was, Japan remains a major producer of NAND memory and CMOS image sensors. Today Japan's involvement in the semiconductor industry largely revolves around equipment and materials used to make chips, according to the International Trade Administration.

The US may be a major source of semiconductor intellectual property and patents, but the majority of chip manufacturing remains centered in the Asia Pacific. As such, any efforts by the US to cut off China's semiconductor industry will require the support of its allies.

In addition to Japan, the ambassador also reportedly highlighted the importance of South Korea — home to Samsung Electronics, the second-largest contract semiconductor manufacturer — and the Netherlands — home to ASML, which produces chipmaking equipment used in leading edge manufacturing.

US keeps pressure on China

Since the passage of the $280 billion US Chips and Science Act this summer, the Biden administration has stepped up its efforts to stifle China's semiconductor industry.

China may be the second-largest global economy behind the US, but its domestic semiconductor industry has lagged behind that of South Korea, Taiwan, and the US. Today, China possesses the ability to produce chips as small as 7nm. By comparison TSMC has begun mass production of 3nm and Samsung isn't far behind. Meanwhile, Intel is ramping production of its Intel 4 process and is preparing to launch 18-angstrom — 2nm — parts late next year.

One of the barriers facing China is access to specialized extreme-ultraviolet lithography machines used to produce 7nm and smaller components. Last fall, the US Commerce Department barred equipment vendors LAM research, KLA Corp, and Applied Materials from exporting their goods to Chinese chipmakers without explicit licensing.

In addition to denying access to chipmaking equipment, the Biden administration has also targeted Chinese chipmakers directly. Last fall the Commerce Department added China's largest memory manufacturer Yangtze Memory Technologies Company (YMTC) along with 35 other companies to its "Entity List." The move effectively banned the sale and export of US goods to these companies.

In response, China has filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization against the US chip export controls. However, as we previously reported, because these restrictions were made on the basis of national security, the WTO has no authority to intervene.

US wins not without consequences

The Commerce Department has had some success cutting off Chinese access to foreign fabs and equipment vendors. Under pressure from the US, the Dutch government blocked ASML from selling both its extreme-ultraviolet (EUV) and deep ultraviolet (DUV) lithography machines in China.

It's unclear how ASML's revenues could be affected by the decision. The company's China business accounts for roughly 15 percent of its annual revenues. Some quick back-of-napkin math shows that cut off from the Middle Kingdom, ASML stands to lose more than $3 billion in annual revenues. 

US sanctions have also hampered TSMC's ability to do business with Chinese chipmakers. Late last year, TSMC was reportedly forced to halt production of new GPUs for Chinese Alibaba and Biren because they exceeded performance limits set by US trade restrictions.

The US trade war against China certainly hasn't been popular with TSMC. During an industry event last month its CEO CC Wei complained that US efforts had hamstrung the company's ability to do business. His comments echoed those of TSMC founder Morris Chang who recently claimed globalization was on its last leg.

US sanctions are also expected to cost US equipment vendors billions in revenues over the next 12 months. Following a ban on chipmaking equipment last fall, Lam Research warned investors that lost business in China would cost the company as much as $2.5 billion in revenues in 2023.

And in November, Applied Materials told investors US sanctions could end up costing the company as much as $2.5 billion in 2023, or about 10 percent of the company's revenues in 2022. ®

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