A silicon wafer is seen through a scaled lens element. Credit: ASML

The Chinese government has called the United States “selfish” as Washington works at persuading Japan and the Netherlands to join its chip export ban imposed on China. 

“In order to perpetuate its hegemony and selfish interests, the US has repeatedly abused export controls and politicized technology and trade issues by using them as a weapon to exert economic coercion over its allies,” said Wang Wenbin, spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry. 

Wang said the US’s actions severely violated market rules and disrupted the international trade order. He also said China hoped Japan and the Netherlands would do the right thing and work together to uphold the multilateral free trade regime, as well as to protect their own long-term interests.

His comments, the strongest ever over the matter, came as US President Joe Biden met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the White House on Friday to discuss not only Tokyo’s military reforms but also some joint efforts to restrict the exports of Japanese lithography tools to China.

Biden will also meet Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in Washington for a related discussion on January 17.

Commentators said Beijing used particularly strong language this time as it felt the heat and pinch of the US sanctions. They said, in an extreme case, China would only be able to make 90nm or even lower-end chips if it could not import more lithography tools from Japan and the Netherlands.

In recent weeks, Chinese websites said Shanghai Micro Electronics Equipment (SMEE) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) had Deep Ultraviolet (DUV) lithography tools capable of producing 28nm and 22nm chips. Certain IT experts said those claims were exaggerated, however.  

Since early 2020, the US has stopped the Netherlands from exporting to China its extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography technology that can make chips smaller than 22nm. Last October, it imposed a new round of chip export bans on Chinese firms.

Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser at the White House, said on December 12 that the US was discussing with Japan and the Netherlands about banning China from obtaining high-end chips and chip-making equipment.

Media said Japan and the Netherlands had agreed in principle to join US-led technology export controls, despite the negative impacts it would have on Japan’s Tokyo Electron Ltd and Dutch lithography maker ASML Holding NV.

Light and lasers are key to Netherlands’ ASML’s lithography equipment. Photo: ASML

Last week, Yasutoshi Nishimura, Japanese minister of economy, trade and industry, said Tokyo would work more closely with Washington on export controls. A US official told Reuters that Japan’s export restrictions might not be exactly the same as those of the US.

On December 15, China filed a case to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and requested consultations over the US chip export bans.

On December 19, an article published by Sina.com said the CAS developed a DUV lithography tool that could make 22nm chips. It said that, although this product was not the most advanced in the world, it could help China bypass the US sanctions.

The article has since been widely circulated on other Chinese websites. But in fact, the launch of the tool is old news.

Xinhua reported in November 2018 that the CAS had developed lithography technology that can use ultraviolet light with a wavelength of 365nm for a single exposure to make 22nm chips. With other high-precision parts, it could conceivably even make 10nm chips.

The report said the tool had been used in the 8th Research Institute of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and several Chinese universities.

A Chinese columnist said the CAS’s so-called “breakthrough” was far from capable in chip-making. He said it would take a very long journey from having a single exposure of UV light on a wafer to making one chip, not to say mass production and commercial use.

Another article said on December 20 last year that the SMEE would deliver its DUV lithography tool, known as SSA800/10W, in 2023.

It said the tool could make 28nm chips in a single exposure, or 7nm ones in multiple exposures. It also claimed the tool used an argon fluoride (ArF) laser to produce ultraviolet light with a wavelength of 193nm, meaning that it was only one generation behind ASML’s EUV lithography.  

It said this breakthrough would allow SMEE to surpass Japan’s Canon and Nikon and become the world’s No 2 lithography giant after ASML.

In June 2020, Chinese media reported that the SMEE would deliver SSA800/10W in late 2020, but until now, it has not yet been realized. Some articles said the product had repeatedly failed the required tests.

Shanghai Micro Electronics Equipment said its SSZ600/20 could make 90nm chips. Photo: SMEE.com.cn

An IT expert pointed out that the SMEE could not buy ArF laser from Japan due to the US sanctions.

The SMEE’s most advanced lithography, namely SSZ600/20, can make 90nm chips, according to the company’s website. It also uses ArF lasers.

Li Guojie, chief scientist of the CAS, wrote in an article on October 17 last year that China would not be able to make a fifth-generation older DUV lithography tool any time soon. 

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Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3