The denunciations have died down of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s unprecedented recent invitation to Russia to attack NATO members that do not contribute their committed 2% of gross domestic product to defense. With the dust settled, the damage done is not all self-evident. One particular widening fault line involving advanced semiconductors merits close examination because it is of the highest strategic importance.

This foreshock to NATO’s foundations not only imperils our European theater security, but in a very surprising and deep way our Asian theater security as well.

If one had to pick the single country and company that could do more damage to U.S. military readiness to successfully combat China’s aggression anywhere in the world, the Netherlands and ASML should — surprisingly — be the top candidates.

Semiconductors are the fundamental building block of the many emerging technologies that will likely appear in the next developmental phase of military weapons, such as hypersonic missiles, quantum computers, artificial intelligence-controlled drone swarms and autonomous killer robots. Semiconductors are not simply another important technology or even a first-among-equals technology; semiconductors are alone in a class of the first order because they undergird all other advanced technologies.

There is no domestic manufacturer of the most advanced and second most advanced semiconductor manufacturing technology, i.e., respectively, extreme ultraviolet (EUV) technology and deep ultraviolet (DUV) lithography systems. The world’s sole manufacturer of EUV chipmaking equipment and lithography systems is ASML, which is based in the Netherlands, a country that for years has not been meeting its commitment of contributing 2% of its GDP to fund NATO. (The Netherlands clocks in at 1.63% of its 2023 GDP, based on 2015 dollars, right below Germany.)

While ASML has no competitors for its EUV lithography equipment, it has two competitors for its DUV lithography systems: Nikon and Canon. All three companies have a desire to sell their competing lithography systems to China, who is a voracious buyer.

The United States’ national security risk of not being the home country to all of the manufacturers of EUV and DUV lithography systems means that we must relentlessly work to prevent a divergence in semiconductor export control foreign policy with the Netherlands and Japan that permits these advanced semiconductor chip manufacturing systems from being sold to hostile countries, such as China or Russia.

Our current, ad hoc tactics to address this grave national security risk have had limited success and are decidedly inadequate to meet this first-order challenge.

In 2021, the U.S. stopped ASML from selling EUV manufacturing equipment to China through ad hoc strong-arming of the Netherlands’ export control regime. Unsurprisingly, given that each unit costs approximately €160 million (U.S. $173 million), ASML did not support the United States’ position. In 2022, the U.S. stopped ASML from selling to China certain DUV manufacturing equipment, which is a generation behind the more advanced EUV, but still the most common method in making some less advanced chips required by computers, cars, and phones. Again, ASML had resisted such sales restrictions regarding DUV manufacturing equipment. Such resistance is entirely predictable given that China made up 29% of ASML’s sales in 2023, which was more than €6 billion.

While Japan agreed in 2023 to restrict exports of chipmaking equipment in response to U.S. pressure, it is currently rejecting the United States’ push to expand the scope of those export control restrictions.

Because the U.S. has no effective global semiconductor foreign policy strategy, the U.S. is again resorting to ad hoc strong-arming of the Netherlands’ export control regime. In the latest current development, the U.S. is insisting ASML stop servicing the advanced chip making equipment it has sold to China.

So now one subterranean consequence of the NATO foreshock is clear: It will now be significantly harder for the U.S. to strong-arm ASML over its lithography systems and maintenance services being exported to China when there is now doubt about whether the Netherlands and U.S. are on the same team.

“If the U.S. role in NATO decreases, then probably also the leverage that the U.S. has ... with regard to technology transfers to China will decrease,” Frans-Paul van der Putten of the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank, recently said.

This NATO foreshock reemphasizes what we have argued previously: The U.S. needs a global foreign policy to control semiconductor exports instead of its current, ad hoc hectoring tactics. More specifically, we need an international treaty governing the export of advanced semiconductors involving key allies that constitute the backbone of the semiconductor supply chain (think Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea and Taiwan).

From the military perspective of such a semi-allies group, there is a critical need to prevent such advanced chip technology from being exported to, or independently developed in, countries that are hostile to them, such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. We need a stable, enduring semiconductor foreign policy that is not subject to the whims of any current or future administration. A foreshock may presage a possible earthquake; we are gravely unprepared, with no time to waste.

André Brunel is an international technology attorney with Reiter, Brunel and Dunn. This commentary was adapted from his article recently published in the Journal of Business & Technology Law. The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are his and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the law firm or any clients it represents.

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