China's chipmaking tool purchases skyrocket — imports up 256% in the face of intensifying U.S. sanctions

(Image credit: Micron)

Despite U.S.-led restrictions on wafer fab equipment exports to China, the People's Republic saw a remarkable increase in its imports of lithography systems from the Netherlands in the first two months of 2024. It is believed that Semiconductor Manufacturing International Co., China's largest contract chipmaker, was the main buyer of ASML's litho systems.

Based on data from China Customs cited by and TrendForce, there was a 256.1% year-on-year growth in imports, with 32 systems brought in January and February. However, there was a notable decline of 44.8% compared to the previous quarter. The surge in imports can be traced back to the Netherlands' announcement in June 2023 of restrictions on the export of chip manufacturing equipment. With the regulations taking effect on January 1, 2024, Chinese companies rushed to acquire lithography systems in the latter half of 2023. The acquisitions led to a dramatic increase in imports, highlighted by a 1,050% surge in November 2023 alone.

Meanwhile, the acceleration of wafer fab equipment procurement is not surprising, as 18 new fabs are expected to start operations in China in 2024.  

In the first two months of 2024, China's imports of lithography systems from the Netherlands totaled $1.057 billion, a substantial increase compared to the same period last year. In January, 20 systems were imported, worth $666 million, a 522% increase year-on-year. In February, imports were valued at $390 million, up 105.9% year-on-year, with 12 systems brought in.

The average selling price (ASP) of a lithography system imported from the Netherlands has significantly risen. However, the ASP also shows that most litho tools sold to China are designed for trailing nides. From an ASP of $10 million per unit in May 2023, the average price tripled to over $30 million per unit in the first two months of 2024.

The imports were concentrated in a few key regions within China. The top five providers to ship litho tools were Shanghai (which led the pack with $303 billion), Beijing, Shandong, Sichuan, and Guangdong, which accounted for 78.4% of the total imports. 

According to statistics from JW Insights, the leading companies in the Shanghai region include SMIC, Jita, TSMC Shanghai, Hua Hong, Ding Tai Craftsmanship, Shanghai Geke Micro, and Diodes. In the Beijing region, there are SMIC, Changxin Storage, Saiwei Electronics, and Yandong Microelectronics, while in the Shandong region, there are Qingdao Xin'En and BYD Jinan. The Sichuan region is home to Texas Instruments Chengdu, and in the Guangdong region, there are SMIC, Guangzhou Yuecore, Guangzhou Zengcore, and Runpeng Semiconductor.

Anton Shilov
Freelance News Writer

Anton Shilov is a Freelance News Writer at Tom’s Hardware US. Over the past couple of decades, he has covered everything from CPUs and GPUs to supercomputers and from modern process technologies and latest fab tools to high-tech industry trends.