US makes new move to rein in China’s advanced chip manufacturing

The US is once again trying to slow advances in China’s chip manufacturing industry, a move that is unlikely to pay dividends long term, but may help US business concerns in the very short term, according to analysts and other China technology experts. The outcome will shape the semiconductor industry in the years to come.

Reuters reported on the latest diplomatic efforts on Wednesday, noting that US export policy chief Alan Estevez is traveling in an attempt to expand a 2023 agreement between the US, Japan and the Netherlands “to keep chipmaking equipment from China that could help to modernize its military.”

But experts on Chinese technology strategies are skeptical the talks will yield much and, if anything is achieved, they are even more skeptical that it will help long-term. That said, even a short-term delay in China’s chip-making progress could give US companies more breathing room.

The negotiations are tricky. US negotiators must convince key governmental and industrial concerns to stop selling chip manufacturing equipment and materials to China, even though it means surrendering a massive amount of revenue.

Lithography systems a key lever

Japan’s chip strength comes from a wide range of materials and components, whereas the Netherlands’ specialty is lithography systems, the complex machines used to etch semiconductor designs on silicon wafers, said Mario Morales, the group VP overseeing semiconductor coverage for IDC. Lithography “is what makes the most advanced silicon today. These are all critical market segments, so it definitely slows things down, but China is absolutely investing in those spaces,” he said.

The sums of money at stake make the US diplomatic efforts unlikely to succeed, Morales said.

“Some 25 percent of Intel’s business is coming from China,” he said, adding that AMD, Nvidia, and Qualcomm also rely heavily on sales to China. And if the US negotiators are successful, Morales said that he expects China to retaliate.

The only argument that the US can make is long-term, Morales said. These companies all know that China is heavily investing in its own manufacturing operations, and it will only be a few years — Morales projects five to seven years — before China will no longer need materials from Japan and the Netherlands. Once that happens, China will cut off revenue to those companies anyway.

The argument goes that not cooperating with the US now may make the US less likely to be there for those companies when China no longer needs them. On the flip side, it’s unlikely the US would cut back on purchases from Japan and the Netherlands even if they don’t cooperate because US companies need their support. It’s not as though the US would want American companies to buy from China any more than is absolutely necessary.

Morales specified automotive, smartphone and China’s own AI operations as representing the bulk of China’s current chip investments. “These are all critical market segments, so it definitely slows things down, but China is absolutely investing in those spaces,” Morales said. “Most of these initiatives will fail. And even if they don’t, it only contains China for a short term.”

Irina Tsukerman is a geopolitical analyst, a national security lawyer and the president of Scarab Rising, a global strategy advisory firm. Tsukerman argues that these talks are going to make things very awkward for some of these chip component and tooling manufacturers.

Short-term profit or long-term relationship

“The scramble over these restrictions means companies will hard pressed to make a choice whether to take maximum advantage of that window of opportunity to make profit, likely at escalated prices, to sell that equipment to China,” Tsukerman said, “or get on the US good side early and voluntarily start cooperating with the additional restrictions with a possibility of gaining early leverage and scoring investments or other positive incentives from Washington, before negative incentives are introduced more broadly.”

But she agrees with the US efforts, as she argues that it will likely succeed in the very short-term.

“Until now, China has been able to capitalize on weak import-export controls, including via US-friendly countries, as well as loopholes in the type of equipment banned under restrictions, to continue apace with its development of its domestic chip industry,” Tsukerman said. “Netherlands and Japan remain in possession of some of the most advanced equipment for developing semiconductors. If these loopholes and restrictions are tightened, China will have a much harder time with making the breakthroughs it needs to circumvent the overall bans on AI chips.”

Tsukerman said that US government officials should also look inward, as China has taken advantage of ineffective enforcement from multiple US agencies. The US “should look towards its own import-export controls, because the occasional and sometimes systematic unwillingness of its agencies to enforce these controls has resulted in China exploiting additional loopholes to gain access to such equipment,” she said. 

Retaliatory measures

In terms of likely Chinese retaliation, the Chinese government would have many options. “The US and its allies should be preparing for a likely eventuality of China placing additional restrictions on the rare earth minerals and other raw materials used in the development of semiconductors to prevent the US and its counterparts from advancing further and making it easier for China to catch up even under restriction,” Tsukerman said.

Potentially more importantly, Tsukerman said the US focus on China might prove problematic, as these chip supplies could also come from various other countries. “Working only with the Netherlands and Japan to prevent China from gaining access to equipment is clearly insufficient. China has benefited from loose import-export controls in countries willing to sell that type of equipment produced with Dutch, Japanese, and/or joint US involvement to China with the same result. The coalition should work in tandem to shut down gray zones, possibly imposing secondary sanctions on countries willing to sell such equipment,” she said. “For now, the chipmaking equipment production is dominated by the US-led coalition. It is only a matter of time before other countries develop their own capabilities, BRICS members being the prime example,” she added, referring to the intergovernmental organization founded by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa and more recently expanded to include Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates.

Tsukerman said recent US efforts to negotiate with India may be a good move, “India could still be helpful to chipmaking production in any of the expanded BRICS members in many other ways. Meanwhile, such restrictions certainly do not apply to any of the other members, including Saudi Arabia, which is dedicating billions to start a regional semiconductor hub and may receive China’s assistance in exchange for providing China with such equipment.”

Brian Levine, a managing partner with Ernst & Young who was one of the US Department of Justice’s representatives in the US law enforcement Joint Liaison Group (JLG) with China, said that he sees even a miniscule delay in China’s chip-making efforts as worthwhile for US interests. 

War is waged with microchips

“Progress is progress and the same is true for the delay of progress. These days, war is waged not with guns, but with microchips,” Levine said. “Win the war on microchips and you may win the war generally. I think the administration is trying to pull what levers it can. The degree to which it will be effective will depend on many factors that are unknowable at this point, such as the level of international cooperation with the effort.”  

Although some have raised questions of hypocrisy with the US trying to pressure China into not doing what it is actively doing, Levine disagrees. “Much of this technology was likely stolen from the US and other countries, so I have limited sympathy for those who may get worked up about the US attempting to impose such restrictions.”

Robert Khachatryan, the CEO of Freight Right Global Logistics, is also uncertain about how much of an impact the US diplomatic efforts will make. 

“Although the restrictions may slow China’s progress in the short term, it is uncertain if they will be sufficient to halt it entirely. China has been increasing its investments in domestic chip production, aiming for self-sufficiency,” Khachatryan said. “Restricting China’s access to AI chip technology could disrupt global supply chains and commerce, as China accounts for 24 percent of global semiconductor consumption. Such restrictions might slow worldwide production and distribution and shift trade dynamics, with countries seeking alternative suppliers.”