Chinese semiconductor manufacturers and their U.S. suppliers should have seen the Biden administration’s latest export restrictions coming. It’s possible they did. The question is whether they’re prepared.
Years ago, the Trump administration sent the first shot across the bow, first cutting off Huawei from advanced chips and later successfully pressing the Dutch government to bar the sale of EUV lithography machines made by Netherlands-based ASML to leading Chinese semiconductor firm SMIC.
The EUV ban kept SMIC and, by association, China, from getting a chance at producing leading-edge chips with smaller transistors. Smaller transistors make for faster, more energy-efficient chips, and there were concerns that EUV-made Chinese chips would have facilitated myriad military and surveillance applications, including hypersonic missiles and AI-powered video and cyber monitoring tools.
Though SMIC said it could produce chips that were similar to some of its competitors’ second-best designs, the yields were reportedly atrocious. Without EUV, the process was unlikely to be profitable anytime soon.
China is likely trying to develop its own version, but it’ll be a long road. Even if Chinese companies could get their hands on EUV and related technologies, whether through espionage or some other means, they still would have to duplicate ASML’s global supply chain of more than 5,000 suppliers, some of which are the only ones that have the expertise to make those specific parts.