U.S. Weighs New Move to Limit China’s Access to Chip Technology (from WSJ article)

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The Trump administration is weighing new trade restrictions on China that would limit the use of American chip-making equipment, as it seeks to cut off Chinese access to key semiconductor technology, according to people familiar with the plan.

The Commerce Department is drafting changes to the so-called foreign direct product rule, which restricts foreign companies’ use of U.S. technology for military or national-security products. The changes could allow the agency to require chip factories world-wide to get licenses if they intend to use American equipment to produce chips for Huawei Technologies Co., according to the people familiar with the discussions. Chinese companies are bound to see the action as a threat to them too, which is a goal of the proposed rule, said the people briefed on the effort.

The move is aimed at slowing China’s technological advancement but could risk disrupting the global supply chain for semiconductors and dent growth for many U.S. companies, U.S. industry participants said.

The changes have been under discussion for weeks, according to the people, but were only recently proposed, and would come in addition to a separate rule that would limit the ability of U.S. companies to supply Huawei from their overseas facilities.

Not everyone within the administration supports the idea, and the changes haven’t been reviewed by President Trump, several of the people said. The president has said he wants to allow U.S. companies to supply Huawei with equipment that isn’t deemed sensitive from a national security perspective.

The new rules are part of a series of measures Washington has taken in recent months to restrict chip trade with China. The Commerce Department is expected to push additional limits on the export of chips with some U.S. technology content before targeting chip-production equipment, one of the people said.

Still, the proposal shows the blunt tools the Trump administration is prepared to use in its bid to cut China off from America’s semiconductor sector. Semiconductor technology is a key area where China has struggled to cut its reliance on foreign suppliers despite years of effort. Semiconductors rank among China’s largest imports from the U.S.

“They don’t want any fab in the world to produce anything for Huawei—that’s the goal,” one person said, speaking of the chip fabrication plants that likely would be affected by the new trade limits.

The Trump administration also is considering cutting off China from jet-engine technology, another area where Beijing has struggled to shed reliance on U.S. and European manufacturers.

Were the U.S. to restrict semiconductor-manufacturing tools, that could hurt China’s local chip industry, some of the people said, because it would be difficult for Chinese chip makers to find adequate replacements from other countries. It could also roil the chip-making supply chain by forcing non-Chinese chip makers to choose between keeping Huawei as a customer or buying American equipment.

Many U.S. and other Western officials see Huawei as an espionage risk because it is a Chinese company and, they argue, couldn’t resist government requests for access to its data and equipment. Huawei says its equipment is secure and can’t be used to spy. It also says it has never spied on behalf of the Chinese government.

U.S. chip-manufacturing tool makers, such as Applied Materials Inc. AMAT -0.77% and Lam Research Corp., LRCX -0.67% are among the biggest in the industry. The equipment they make is some of the most expensive machinery in the world. Setting up a modern chip factory typically costs many billions of dollars, and new restrictions on U.S. equipment could drive customers toward alternatives.

“It would be a huge disincentive for any fab to use U.S. equipment because there would be a limitation on that versus Japanese or Chinese equipment,” one of the people said.

The restrictions, if enacted, could reverberate to semiconductor-design companies, many of them American, that don’t produce their own hardware but rely on contract chip manufacturers.

Companies such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., TSM -1.92% the world’s largest contract chip maker, typically have customers from across the world. Limiting its Huawei business could hit sales and affect the manufacturer’s ability to invest in research and development.

More than 10% of TSMC total sales, which topped $35 billion last year, are generated from Huawei’s chip-making subsidiary HiSilicon, industry officials estimate. TSMC doesn’t break down sales by customers.

A company spokeswoman declined to address what might happen if the rule were enacted and wouldn’t comment on Huawei specifically.

The restrictions also could hit earnings for Applied Materials, Lam Research and other U.S. chip-manufacturing machinery companies. The companies didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Despite a recent breakthrough in U.S.-China trade talks, which produced a phase-one deal last month, the Trump administration has looked for ways to tighten the screws on Beijing, and especially on Huawei, which had about $122 billion in sales last year from its globe-spanning telecom empire.

After the U.S. last year imposed restrictions on sales of chips to Huawei, some companies were able to continue their shipments by using a rule that allowed license-free sales to the company if products were less than 25% American-made. The Commerce Department has proposed reducing that threshold to 10%. The Defense Department, which initially objected to the tighter limit, dropped its opposition to the plan, potentially clearing the way for it to go forward.

U.S. government officials are slated to meet Feb. 28 to discuss the reduction in the threshold and potential wider restrictions on manufacturing of chips for Chinese customers, according to a person familiar with the matter. The potential expansion of a U.S. export ban to include more Chinese companies is also on the agenda, the person said.

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