US gov't working on list of Chinese fabs banned from advanced chipmaking tools as China's stockpiling spree continues

(Image credit: SMIC)

The U.S. government is in the process of creating a list of Chinese chipmaking facilities that are restricted from receiving advanced tools, Reuters reports, citing three people familiar with the matter. The list is expected to be ready within a couple of months. Meanwhile, Chinese entities are accelerating purchases of lithography systems from ASML and, possibly American companies, too. 

The list is said to be geared toward simplifying compliance for companies that ship chipmaking tools to the People's Republic, but on the other hand, it may patch some loopholes to make it harder for Chinese entities to overcome U.S. export controls. 

Export regulations enacted by the United States in 2022 mandate that American companies and individuals obtain export licenses to sell equipment and technologies involved in the production of non-planar transistor logic chips on 14nm/16nm nodes and below, 3D NAND with at least 128 layers, and DRAM memory chips with a half-pitch of 18nm or smaller. However, companies have struggled to determine which Chinese fabs fall under this category and have advocated for the Commerce Department to provide a clear list. 

The current process of getting a U.S. export license to sell a fab tool to a Chinese entity involves disclosing the exact destination of that tool, which means specifying a fab. The U.S. government understands which of the China-based fabs can produce chips and memory on advanced production nodes, so it does not allow sophisticated pieces of equipment to be shipped there. Meanwhile, it greenlights shipments of advanced systems to fabs specializing in trailing process nodes (older technology). Some believe that because the U.S. government cannot control exactly where the fab tools are ultimately installed, this is a way for some fabs to obtain machines that they cannot formally have under the latest U.S. export rules. 

A list of fabs that can get U.S.-made tools and technologies will simplify the life of companies like Applied Materials, KLA, and Lam Research. Meanwhile, it will naturally patch some of the loopholes in the U.S. export controls. 

The creation of this list indicates the U.S. government's dedication to reinforcing its existing restrictions on China's chip industry and addressing security risks associated with the transfer of advanced technology to China. At the same time, it is designed to make it easier for American companies to adhere to these regulations and keep selling their products to some Chinese entities. 

According to Reuters, during an annual export controls conference held in Washington this week, U.S. officials discussed the industry's requests for a list of specific facilities. One official noted that while the list might not be comprehensive, it would assist in identifying the fabs that are of particular concern to the U.S. government. 

The Chinese Embassy in Washington has criticized the U.S. export rules, accusing it of excessively expanding the concept of national security and misusing state power to target Chinese businesses. A spokesperson for the embassy urged the U.S. to cease these actions in a conversation with the news agency.

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.