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Report: China’s Buying Used Chip-Making Equipment to Skirt US Restrictions

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Tensions between the U.S. and China have proved lucrative for some Japanese companies. Nikkei Asia today reported that prices for used chip-making equipment, which aren’t subject to U.S. restrictions imposed in 2020, have risen 20% on average as a result of increased demand from Chinese semiconductor manufacturers.

The U.S. imposed new sanctions on SMIC, the largest semiconductor manufacturer in China, in September 2020 to prevent it from purchasing new chip-making equipment. It also added the company to the Entity List in December 2020 to make it even harder for other businesses to supply it with American-developed technology.

Used chip-making equipment sellers in Japan aren’t subject to those same restrictions. Nikkei Asia said those sellers have struggled to keep their products in stock, which has led to significant price increases over the last year. The value of critical equipment such as lithography systems reportedly tripled in that timeframe.

Nikkei Asia said that “nearly 90% of used machines appear to be headed to China,” per a source at Mitsubishi UFJ Lease & Finance, and that another anonymous source at an unidentified used equipment dealer claimed, “machines that were basically worthless several years ago are now selling for 100 million yen [$940,000].”

Some of that equipment is being used on production lines, but Nikkei Asia said that some of it‘s merely being hoarded just in case it could prove useful in the future. It doesn’t make a difference to the companies selling that equipment; they’re making significant profits and selling through stock they otherwise would’ve sat on.

That isn’t just true of Japanese companies. Bloomberg reported earlier this month that “Chinese businesses bought almost $32 billion of equipment used to produce computer chips from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere” in 2020. That was “a 20% jump from 2019,” according to the report, and that growth could continue.

The end goal for China is self-sufficiency. Companies in the country have made progress on their own chip-making equipment so they won’t have to rely on American technologies, for example, and SMIC has sought other ways to reduce the U.S. blacklisting’s effect on its ability to advance the Chinese semiconductor industry.

China’s also worked to develop its own CPUs, GPUs, memory, and other components so it won’t have to rely on Western products. But until it can replace American chip-making equipment entirely, assuming the U.S. won’t budge on its restrictions, the country’s going to have to continue to stockpile these once-outdated machines.