Dutch PM to meet China’s Xi amid doubts on ASML tool licenses

By Toby Sterling

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Chinese President Xi Jinping will next week discuss whether ASML can continue to service billions of euros worth of computer chip equipment it has sold to Chinese customers, people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The Dutch government said in a statement Rutte’s visit is to discuss “bilateral and economic ties, and the situation in the Middle East”.

But also on the table at their meeting will be licencing policy for ASML, the biggest supplier of equipment to semiconductor manufacturers, whose tools have become a flashpoint in the U.S.-China “chip wars”.

ASML dominates the global market for lithography systems, multi-million dollar tools essential in helping to create the circuitry of computer chips.

One of Xi’s top policy goals has been to help China build up its domestic chipmaking industry, spending billions on subsidies.

Meanwhile the U.S. government is seeking to undermine China’s ability to make its own chips, and has enlisted aid from the Dutch and Japanese governments.

ASML has said that as of Jan. 1, it no longer expects to receive licences from the Dutch government to ship its advanced “DUV” tool lines to Chinese customers.

But it remains unclear how much of the equipment ASML has already sold to Chinese customers – more than 6 billion euros ($6.5 billion) worth last year alone – it will be able to continue to service.

Sooner or later the company must seek licences for equipment already in China that now falls under Dutch or U.S. export rules. If licences are denied, or revoked, ASML’s tools would become impossible to operate within weeks – potentially devastating for its customers, which include China’s largest contract chipmaker SMIC.

ASML, which complies with all export regulations, declined comment on Friday.

“ASML has export licenses in place to service the majority of its Chinese customers until Dec. 31, 2024,” it said in an emailed answer to Reuters questions about machines that fall under the export restrictions earlier this week. It will then have to seek annual renewal licenses.

For some of its most advanced product lines “ASML has not received an export license to continue servicing of these systems at some specific advanced logic fabs (in China) as of 1st November 2023,” the company added.

China was ASML’s second-largest market in 2023 behind Taiwan and ahead of South Korea, and it has said it expects to continue to have significant sales in China this year of product lines used to make relatively older chips, which do not fall under the current restrictions.

During the March 26-27 visit, Rutte is expected to meet with Xi and premier Li Qiang. Dutch Trade Minister Geoffrey van Leeuwen is also attending and expected to meet with Chinese Trade Minister Wang Wentao.

“They will discuss economic cooperation opportunities, the importance of a level playing field, and the importance of equal market access,” the Dutch government said in a statement.

($1 = 0.9244 euros)

(Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Barbara Lewis and Angus MacSwan)