24 November 2023

US President Joe Biden delivers a speech during a visit to semiconductor maker Wolfspeed in Durham, North Carolina, US, March 28, 2023.

QWhen Yoshimasa Hayashi meets his Chinese counterpart this weekend in Beijing, the Japanese foreign minister will have a new contentious issue with Qin Gang: semiconductors. On the eve of this visit, Japan announced on Friday March 31 that it would restrict the export of machines manufacturing the latest generation microprocessors from July. The measure aims to “prevent the misuse of technology for military purposes”justified the Minister of Economy, Yasutoshi Nishimura.

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The Archipelago is following the path of the Netherlands, leader in the sector with the company ASML, which had decreed, on March 8, an embargo on behalf of the “international and national security”. In this series with twists and turns of the “flea war”, the two title roles do not appear in the official credits: China, which is not specifically targeted, and the United States, yet on the move since the fall 2022 to curb the Chinese race for technologies for civilian and military purposes.

Washington is exerting intense pressure on its allies to deprive them of high-performance chips engraved in 4, 3 and even 2 nanometers intended for mobile telephony and connected cars, but also for space conquest, supercomputers and military equipment.

Exorbitant requirements

The decision was not easy to make. The world’s second and third largest economies are trading partners with intersecting interests. And the embargo will be very penalizing for the ten manufacturers concerned, in particular Nikon and Tokyo Electron. But it is just as much for ASML, which had denounced, at the end of 2022, the exorbitant requirements of the United States.

The group’s CEO, Peter Wennink, went so far as to imply that they favored American industry to the detriment of European competitors. A criticism immediately rejected, across the Atlantic, by the industry lobby, worried about losing market share to competitors less constrained by American law.

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The Semiconductor Industry Association has therefore obtained from the Biden administration that all Western companies are more or less subject to the same restrictions on the export of equipment and specialists to the Middle Kingdom. Under cover of Sino-American tensions, it is indeed an industrial and commercial war that is being played out in the Western camp. The Chips and Science Act, voted in Congress in August 2022 and endowed with 50 billion euros, is the high point: it has already attracted huge investments from the Taiwanese TSMC and the South Korean Samsung. For Joe Biden, “all this is in the interest of our economy”.

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