I think I am the perfect person to answer this. I have been working in the semiconductor industry for years, currently living in the Netherlands, lived and worked in China for 3 years, I know a lot of engineers from ASML (expecially after they hired hundreds of Turkish engineers).
Let me tell you something: High-end semiconductor manufacturing is black magic. Both the processes and tools used for it are very complex. ASML’s EUV lithography machine is probably the most complex tool humankind ever developed since it stopped jumping between trees. It took billions of Euros and decades of experience to perfect it. Other experienced lithography machine suppliers failed at it. China has no experience in high-end semiconductor manufacturing tools with the exception of one-off/few-off prototypes.
ASML’s EUV lithography machine. Needs 41 semi-trucks to get transported, costs $150 million, has 100.000 major parts, has mirrors that need months of grinding to reach needed smoothness, needs multiple people with PhD’s as machine operators. Quite high-tech. Isn’t it?
Unfortunately, ASML is a very convenient target for the USA. The company uses a lot of critical parts from the USA but those parts don’t represent anything significant in the US economy in terms of their monetary value. Chinese electronics industry still depends on foreign chips so it can not threaten fabs with banning the sale of chips in China that were manufactured using ASML tools. Also, China isn’t a big customer of ASML too. In short, China can not answer with reciprocal sanctions.
Is China hopeless? No.
1- All of those tools are engineered and made by humans, and the laws of physics are the same both in the Netherlands and China. If the Netherlands could, then there is no reason for anybody else to fail with the correct approach.
2- China is filthy rich compared to the Netherlands. Chinese economy is 17x of the Netherlands’, 9x of SK’s, 27x of Taiwan’s, 3+x of Japan’s. With state support, Chinese fabs and tool makers can hire the top people from the rest of the world with salaries ASML, LamResearch, AM, Synopsys, TSMC, Samsung, … simply can not compete with. A significant portion of these companies’ employees are expats anyway, most of them are just after money.
In fact China is already doing this successfully with good results. For example, it already has a working EUV lithography machine prototype, already caught up with the rest in chip testing, packaging, wafer production, also its first immersion lithography machine (good enough for most things) is getting prepared for commercial use.
3- China is a scientific powerhouse on its own. It is the country with most patent applications, most research output, graduates more STEM students than any other country, 2nd largest R&D spender, has 11 universities in top 100. This leads us to my first point. If the Netherlands could, so can China if given enough time.
4- Catching up is much easier than innovating. Knowing something is possible and having a general knowledge of how it works make things much easier.
5- Time is on the Chinese side. Technology of semiconductors is close to maturity/stalling (choose the word depending on your view). If the development slows (which it does) it gives China the opportunity to catch-up. If a tech revolution happens, then the playing field evens out anyway.
6- You don’t need EUV for the most things. You don’t even need high-end processes for the most things. There is more to semiconductors than the latest smartphone processors, GPUs, and CPUs. Look at iPhone 12 teardown videos. You will see a lot of chips. Only one of them needs EUV. An average modern car has 250+ computers inside. That means thousands of chips. All of them are manufactured using old processes. This is even more true for military and space applications. Those use very old chips that are known to be reliable and secure.
Conclusion: Blocking ASML from selling EUV machines to China can hurt Chinese businesses for some time but in the grand scheme it is insignificant. The USA needs to run faster rather than keep trying to block China if it wants to preserve its dominance in tech.
An update on the Chinese EUV light source: New Options for Synchrotron Light Sources
It seems the basic research is complete and the method completely different than of ASML’s.
This EUV thing has been adopted into China’s 14th 5-year plan which has been started since this year. And for the record, China has never missed a single deadline for the past 13 5-year plans. So it’s safe to say that China will have this thing by 2026. So speaking of the US resisting China’s development, it would be 4 more years for this particular item.
And the good thing for China having the EUV equipment is that the price of the equipment will be significantly dropped. So I guess that would be a benefit of the entire world.
America is ALREADY behind China in so MANY aspects and they are still denying and avoiding the thought that America might one day second to China. That frightens many Americans.
No matter how ineffective many of the counter-China measures, e.g. trade war, Americans have and are to put in place, they will keep doing the same things and getting themselves hurt before China does.
The Chinese are the most industrious race on earth.
Necessity is the mother of Invention.
The Chinese will find a way. The more you suppress them and the more you try to deny them the technology - they will begin to make it on their own and they will slowly do better and better.
Chips is the best example.
As long as Taiwan kept supplying them the chips - The Chinese were happy. They focused on other things
The Minute Trump decided to threaten the Chinese - they decided to get their act together and start making their own chips. They will start with inferior ones but in 10 years - they will outmanufacture Taiwan at 1/3 the cost and take away the market.
The US may try again and again but
(a) They waited too long. China is too rich today. They have too much money.
(b) China has too many tentacles in foreign countries. Thousands of Chinese in various industries who are experts.
In Space alone - China was behind India until 2010 - but today - they have their own Mapping System for their huge landmass as well as are in the position of becoming the Third country in the globe to land on Mars - having landed on the moon.
China and Russia are on the verge of building their own International Space Station having both the financial muscle and technology.
You cannot bully or intimidate or stifle Progress. Eventually Life finds a way.
US should learn this lesson hard. The more they try - they may get 10 years more but in the end China will get there and take over.
It might be quite awhile, but there are many variables that’s in play.
It should be noted that NO country at this point can produce the ASML EUV equipment on its own (or even the older generation DUV is questionable), ASML relies heavily on suppliers from Germany / UK / US / Japan etc as well to make their equipment, Japan might be the closest country that can produce a similar (but older generation) equipment relying only on company / tech inside their border.
As of right now the ASML not selling highest-end EUV to China isn’t even really a thing, because they can’t produce enough of them anyway, and the whole project managed to get off the ground because Intel / TSMC / Samsung funded the project SPECIFICALLY so that ASML only really sells to them that machine. it’s not just SMIC of China that can’t buy it, even global foundery of the world can’t either.
There are many layers of problems to China building it’s own extreme ultraviolet lithography machines, but the most difficult is the fact that EUV and the way TSMC & Samsung uses them are the extreme edge of precision engineering and manufacturing. something China has never been particularly great at, for example, they still struggle so far to build their own internal combustion engines to the same level as Japan / Germany (the two key powerhouse players in doing such things.)
There are certainly potential ways for China to reengineer the process and come up with something that has a relatively similar end result but relies on different technologies, however that would require them to completely reinvent the wheel of something that was basically the collaboration of the whole world over decades on their own. Again, that’s not IMPOSSIBLE, but it’s certainly extremely difficult and inefficient.
Not to mention that this is not a purely scientific / engineering project, the difference with TSMC winning over other competitors is primarily COST. i.e that it’s not that Intel CAN’T do 7nm, they can, it’s that their failure rate is much higher than TSMC that if say, Apple relies only on Intel for their 7nm chip, they’ll have to sell their iphone at a much higher price and/or one of Intel or Apple (or both) go bankrupt.
So even if China COULD reverse engineer or re-engineer the EUV machine or subsititute, if it doesn’t actually win out on a cost basis it’s basically useless commercially, an insanely expensive academic project (we’re talking about NASA level funding.) most importantly, the US could simply shut out said machine using standards, and for local chinese companies like SMIC to adapt a different system would be extremely problematic.
Is it POSSIBLE if China just like nationalize SMIC and stuff? yeah, but it would in the grander scheme of things, be pretty close to cutting off your own nose to spit your enemy. China would effectively be abandoning the world market for decades in such a scenario. and probably move slower than their competitors.
What China SHOULD do, is what they have been doing most of the time (some major exceptions of terrible mistakes and frauds non-withstanding.) which is to try and gradually move up the chain and establish more and more companies in this field and hope that some of them eventually hold a major niche that becomes almost indispensable in this field. I’d say that most of the actual workers / players in this field in China understands this and is more or less trying to do that.
But just to remind people, semi conductor’s main raw material input is Silicon
So just to give an idea what shutting out China REALLY looks like.
Now that’s the part on why it’s a major problem for China, the other side of the coin is that the US is increasingly playing a dangerous game as well and could blow up its own advantages or worse.
If you’re ASML and the EU in general, you’re not exactly thrilled to basically have the US policy forced upon you as well. and would probably now actively think about having replacement tech for the US/UK stuff if possible so that you have at least political and economic independence (i.e even if they don’t sell to China, it’s on their terms and not because the US commanded them to do so.) and once that happens the next potential moves by US and others could become quite scary.
It should be generally noted that the EU and other US allies is actually paying almost all the price for the trade war/ geopolitical struggle with China / Russia while the US is benefitting at their expense.
So far if one look at the score board it’s pretty much the US wins and everyone else (friend or foe) loses with a few small exceptions.
This is clearly unsustainable over the long term, and it’s not like this is just happening as a new thing, the general trend has been on-going since at least the early 2000s and not only have the likes of China and Russia been making obvious contingency plans, one would be naive to think that the EU is just a pure puppet with no independent thought or interest apart from the US.