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ASML's big bet on China is starting to backfire

Bloomberg • 7 min read
ASML's big bet on China is starting to backfire
ASML CEO Peter Wennink / Photo: Bloomberg
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In the 10 years that Peter Wennink has run ASML Holding NV, China has gone from a rounding error to the chip-technology company’s third-biggest market. After new revelations about data theft linked to the country, questions are now mounting over the risks associated with that growth.

ASML’s chief executive officer has been steadfast in defending the company’s business there. Even after ASML’s own lawyers argued in court that ex-employees stole intellectual property as part of “a plot to get technology for the Chinese government,” the Dutch company publicly downplayed the issue. It suggested it wasn’t a victim of espionage but of rogue Silicon Valley staffers “who had broken the law to enrich themselves.”

Amid new efforts by the US and its allies to thwart China’s access to semiconductor technology, the disclosure on Wednesday that a former employee took technical information could spark even tighter controls on ASML. Caught in the middle of the escalating political tensions, Wennink has tried to protect a key source of growth, arguing that clamping down could eventually push Beijing to develop its own advanced chipmaking machines.

“Wennink is not happy,” said Alexander Peterc, an analyst with Societe Generale. “All he wants is more customers buying their kit, especially if he’s invested into sales and distribution capability in a country such as China.”

At stake is the potential for Beijing to siphon off key technology for systems that can make the world’s most-advanced chips. No other company has mastered the technology of burning the complex patterns that give chips their function onto disks of silicon the way ASML has.

The company is so crucial for the chip industry that it controlled more than 90% of the $17.1 billion global market for lithography equipment as of 2021, according to research firm Gartner Inc. Its near monopoly on the most advanced lithography systems makes it a critical cog in the industry and a target for spying.

See also: Semiconductor cycle: Going up or down?

“ASML’s main issue lies with the cutting-edge technologies. That technological edge needs to be protected,” said David Criekemans, professor of international relations at the University of Antwerp. “China is a lucrative market. If you’re not there, then perhaps another entity could rival you.”

Wennink has pointed to ASML’s long history of defending the company’s technology and maintaining its lead, thanks in part to reinvesting revenue from markets like China. He and says export controls imposed by the US — and recently adopted by the Netherlands and Japan — risk backfiring.

“If they cannot get those machines, they will develop them themselves,” the CEO said in a January interview with Bloomberg. “That will take time, but ultimately they will get there.”

See also: Unravelling the semiconductor supply chain

Wennink’s tenure started in 2013, the same year that Xi Jinping became president of China. At the time, globalization seemed to have no bounds, and in the years that followed, ASML’s shipments to China started to boom. Over that time, the company’s stock surged 10-fold to make it Europe’s most valuable tech company.

In his first full year as CEO, China started pouring massive resources into the chip industry by setting up a fund that drew about US$45 billion in capital and backed scores of companies. He positioned the Veldhoven-based company to chase those resources.

ASML invested in software development in Shenzhen, manufacturing for inspection systems in Beijing and a regional headquarters in Hong Kong. The company now employs 1,500 people in China. It also has Chinese nationals working at its headquarters in Veldhoven.

The theft that was disclosed in ASML’s annual report this week occurred in a technical repository that includes details of systems critical to producing some of the world’s most advanced chips, people with knowledge of the situation told Bloomberg. The breach involved information but not hardware and was carried out in the last couple of months, the people said. ASML said it’s investigating the breach and responded by tightening security controls.

While the company — which is restricted from selling its most-advanced machines to China — said the theft isn’t material to its business, it comes around a year after a previous revelation.

Last year, ASML accused Beijing-based Dongfang Jingyuan Electron Ltd., of potentially stealing trade secrets. Earlier, in a little noticed 2018 court trial, ASML’s attorneys said ex-employees had plotted to steal IP and send it to a California firm and a related company in China, Dongfang.

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That technology was secured in a sometimes audacious fashion. One engineer was accused of stealing all 2 million lines of source code for critical ASML software and then sharing part of it with employees at Dongfang and the US firm, according to transcripts of the proceedings.

The latest incident has already raised alarm bells in Washington. The US is “deeply concerned” about the allegations, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration Thea Kendler said in Tokyo on Thursday. Tensions between the countries are already high after an alleged Chinese spy balloon hovered over US airspace before being shot down.

The Netherlands has joined the US effort to restrict exports of chip technology to China. ASML’s home country will prevent it from selling to China at least some immersion lithography machines, the most advanced kind of gear in the company’s deep ultraviolet, or DUV, lithography line, people familiar with the talks have told Bloomberg.

“It is very worrying that such a large and reputable company is affected by economic espionage,” said Dutch Trade Minister Liesje Schreinemacher. “This shows once again how important it is that we protect the high-quality technology that we have in the Netherlands very well.”

The Netherlands is likely to face further pressure from Washington to do more and might seek something in return for tightening curbs on ASML, according to Criekemans. The US unveiled restrictions in October that were aimed at curtailing China’s ability to manufacture its own advanced semiconductors or buy cutting-edge chips from abroad that would aid military and artificial-intelligence capabilities.

The pressure has contributed to China’s move to pause massive investments aimed at building its chip industry. Instead, Beijing is seeking alternative ways to assist homegrown chipmakers, such as lowering the cost of semiconductor materials, people familiar with the matter have said.

Wennink has been openly critical of the US-led export controls against China, arguing that excessive restrictions could lead to higher costs for chipmakers. But there’s so much demand for ASML’s machines in the aftermath of the post-Covid semiconductor squeeze that there’s little impact for the company’s business.

A single ASML machine can be the size of a bus and cost roughly US$170 million. If it doesn’t get shipped to China, there’s enough takers elsewhere, especially as the US and Europe seek to onshore key components and unwind some aspects of globalization.

Analysts estimate that the new restrictions could be limited to no more than 4% of the company’s revenue as ASML averted stricter controls. Wennink himself has suggested that there’s still enough demand that the China curbs won’t hamper goals of nearly doubling sales by 2025.

At the end of the day, he’s pushing for governments to get out of the way and for the world to become flat again.

“We’re businesspeople. We’re not politicians,” he said last month. “The laws of physics in China are the same as here.”

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