Chip wars ASML could reportedly brick its machines in Taiwan if China invades

Chip machine-maker ASML reportedly has the power to remotely disable its equipment in TSMC's fabs, should China invade Taiwan.

TSMC is the biggest client of ASML's EUV lithography systems, which use extreme ultraviolet (EUV) wavelengths to manufacture the highest grade of semiconductors. These chips enable a wide range of use cases, from smart tech like phones and car electronics to (most importantly) AI and military applications.

EUVs are the most advanced machines on the market — and ASML is the world's sole manufacturer. This puts the Dutch tech giant (once again) at the centre of an escalating chip war.

Citing anonymous sources familiar with the matter, Bloomberg reports that US government officials expressed concerns over the consequences of TSMC's advanced machines (powered by ASML's EUV technology) falling into the hands of China in the case of an attack on Taiwan.

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According to the sources, ASML met with the Dutch government and reassured officials that it can remotely disable the machines. Reportedly, the company could enable a shutdown through the software updates needed during maintenance to keep the machines running.

ASML declined to comment on the matter when TNW reached out. On its website, the company says its embedded software “steers and controls” all of its lithography systems, comprising “millions of lines of code.” It's not unlikely that one of those lines contains a kill switch.

Chip war at the core of geopolitical tensions

Chips have emerged as the most sought-after commodity, underpinning all the technologies that keep our economies and world moving. As such, they're at the heart of the geopolitical chessboard.

Amid world-wide governmental efforts to secure production and supply of chips, tensions are particularly high between the US and China.

The US hasn't simply been investing in boosting its domestic chip production, but has also been blocking China from obtaining high-end chips or chip-making equipment. This also includes one of ASML's DUV (deep ultraviolet) machines, used for less advanced chips.

ASML has been prohibited from selling its most advanced equipment to China since 2019.

A potential invasion of Taiwan would mean that China would get access to every piece of equipment that both the US and the Netherlands have been seeking to keep out of Beijing's reach.

It could also hinder both European and US access to critical supply chains. Through TSMC, Taiwan makes approximately 90% of the world's most advanced chips.

China has long claimed Taiwan as its own territory and is pushing for a peaceful unification, although it has never excluded using force. Chinese President Xi has refuted US predictions of an imminent unification by 2027.

But tensions are rising as Taiwan's newly-elected President Lai Ching-te is calling on China to end war threats and intimidation.

US Secretary of Commerce Ray Gaimondo recently said that a Chinese takeover of TSMC would be “absolutely devastating” for the country's semiconductor supply.

While it's uncertain whether ASML actually has the power to pull off the plug on its machines, should an invasion take place, it's clear that access to its equipment would further shift the pieces on the board.

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