Chairman and Chief Editor
Bedour Ibrahim

China became ASML’s biggest market last year

ASML’s China Sales Surged Despite Secret Dutch Deal With US

Thursday 25/January/2024 - 06:34 PM
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A secret agreement between the US and the Netherlands last year to limit ASML Holding NV’s deliveries to China didn’t stop a surge in sales of its sensitive chipmaking equipment.

The deal، which hasn’t been reported before، stumbled as ASML turned to Beijing to compensate for weak demand elsewhere. The Dutch government permitted more shipments، allowing China to stock up on the gear before new US-brokered export restrictions came into force this month. 

Intended as a stopgap

Originally intended as a stopgap before those restrictions took effect، the agreement was meant to give priority to shipments of the company’s immersion deep ultraviolet lithography machines to markets outside of China، according to people familiar with the deal who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But the global downturn pushed ASML to successfully lobby The Hague for export licenses to China of critical semiconductor manufacturing kit، dashing US officials’ expectations that the deal would limit deliveries، they said. 

Instead، China became ASML’s biggest market last year، as companies there rushed to buy equipment before the impending export ban.

ASML is only producer of the machines needed to make the most sophisticated semiconductors، and chips its equipment can produce have military applications. The US push to undermine Beijing’s semiconductor ambitions has increasingly singled out the Dutch company، drawing the ire of ASML’s outgoing head Peter Wennink and some local lawmakers.

A prolonged slump

ASML didn’t violate the letter of the agreement، despite the poor optics، according to the people. A prolonged slump in the semiconductor industry limited demand for ASML machines elsewhere. 

“The Netherlands is in an ongoing dialogue with our partners on export controls،” the Dutch Foreign Trade Ministry said in a statement to Bloomberg. It declined to comment on specific cases or the national security considerations it takes into account. 

A spokesperson for the US National Security Council declined to comment. 

In December، imports of lithography equipment from the Netherlands jumped almost 1،000% from a year earlier to $1.1 billion as firms rushed to buy ahead of the start of Dutch restrictions this month.

ASML’s machines are used to shrink and then print patterns of transistors onto silicon wafers، which are then sliced into individual chips. A single machine can be the size of a bus and the latest models cost more than $300 million.

ASML says that most of the equipment it sends to China is not cutting edge. 

“Ninety percent of our business in China has to do with mature technology،” Wennink said in an interview with Bloomberg on Wednesday. 

Still، the second-most advanced machine ASML makes — its immersion deep ultraviolet machines which، unlike the higher-spec model weren’t subject to an export ban until this year — have helped power a breakthrough in Chinese chipmaking. The company’s gear was used by China’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. to produce a 7-nanometer chip for a Huawei Technologies Co. smartphone، Bloomberg reported in October.

Manufacturing capabilities 

That chip demonstrated manufacturing capabilities far beyond what the US was seeking to prevent، and raised fears in Washington that it is too late to halt China’s semiconductor advances. 

After the secret agreement failed to curb ASML deliveries، the US took additional steps to restrict the trade. 

US officials in October unveiled unilateral new limits to foreign companies’ exports of DUV machines. Then، late last year US officials asked ASML to immediately halt scheduled shipments of some equipment to Chinese customers، Bloomberg reported this month.

Washington’s aggressive posture has received mixed reactions in the Netherlands. Some officials have accused the US of bullying the country’s largest company. However، Justice Minister Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius said in November the government should have acted quicker to limit the exports. 

As ASML boosted sales to China، some competitors saw a drop in the Chinese share of their sales.

Sales to China at Applied Materials Inc.، the largest US maker of chip gear، fell for the second year in a row، shrinking to 27% of revenue in the fiscal year 2023. Last year، Lam Research Corp. got about a quarter of its revenue from China، down from a peak of over 35%.

Japan’s Tokyo Electron Ltd. also reduced the share of revenue coming from its East Asian neighbor in the last fiscal year. Japan، like the Netherlands، was pressured by Washington to put up barriers for Chinese semiconductor companies.