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note: for background see Which "critical technologies" does Russia dependent upon the United States and its allies for, that "China does not have access to?"

The Brookings Institution's 2020 article The chip-making machine at the center of Chinese dual-use concerns discusses Extreme ultraviolet lithography or EUV lithography tools, and says:

An EUV machine is made of more than 100,000 parts, costs approximately $120 million, and is shipped in 40 freight containers. There are only several dozen of them on Earth and approximately two years’ worth of back orders for more. It might seem unintuitive that the demand for a $120 million tool far outstrips supply, but only one company can make them. It’s a Dutch company called ASML, which nearly exclusively makes lithography machines for chip manufacturing. Despite this hyperspecialization, it has a market capitalization of more than $150 billion dollars—much higher than IBM’s and only slightly lower than Tesla’s.

and later:

Recognizing the strategic importance of EUV machines, and under pressure from the United States, in November 2019, the Dutch government prevented ASML from shipping an EUV machine to China. Related news coverage painted ASML as a pawn in the U.S.-China trade war, but the Dutch decision was about so much more. There are many strategically important technologies in the development pipeline that are potentially dangerous or destabilizing. They include artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons systems, hypersonic missiles, cyberweapons, surveillance tools, and the latest generation of nuclear weapons. These technologies, and many others, require state-of-the-art chips to develop and deploy. Keeping these chips away from the Chinese government, or those acting on its behalf, can pre-empt many worst-case human rights and security scenarios in the coming decades. The Chinese government cannot engage in techno-authoritarianism or arms races if it lacks advanced chips.

Question: How exactly can keeping chips using EUV technology "pre-empt many worst-case human rights... scenarios in the coming decades?"

I assume it has something to do with artificial intelligence and surveillance as those are mentioned in the same paragraph, but how exactly? What is it that these chips can do that can be used for "many worst-case human rights scenarios"?


EUV lithography tool (ASML/Brookings)

Source: Brookings

See also How ASML Builds a $150 Million EUV Machine

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  • 2
    This strikes me as a very strange argument. Arms races? China could build enough nuclear weapons to sterilize the surface of planet with chips from the 1970s or earlier, the period when the Soviet Union and the United States had their peak stockpiles. Surveillance? China already has a billion cameras. it does not need EUV for that.
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 12 at 7:28
  • 1
    Not to mention that there is nothing intrinsically unique about ASML. China can develop EUV machines if it needs to, or it could just invade Taiwan (TMSC has some EUV capacities). It does not make sense for the world's wealthiest countries to invest hundreds of billions into producing their own EUV machines, but they certainly could. The idea that restricting technology imports to China will make it less authoritarian seems like so much wishful thinking....
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 12 at 7:35
  • The argument referenced by the question is IMO 99% propaganda, it's first of all a large scale industrial policy action (restraint of trade of third parties), which would not be accepted by the third parties whose trade is being restrained, without some excuse.
    – Pete W
    Feb 12 at 17:49
  • How strange that the US government should be keen to research, manufacture and use ICs which are according to the experts above are valueless for surveillance, warfare, cryptography, cyber-warfare, or any other purpose. I guess the US DoD's recent plans to spend $2.3bn for chip manufacture, along with billions of other dollars on high-tech research, are a total waste of money.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 14 at 21:38
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    @Obie2.0 - Have you seen Asianometry's YT videos about ASML? Strictly speaking there may not be anything intrinsically unique about ASML but their business and mutual dependency on & cooperation with other companies is pretty unique. One example: Just look at where ASML gets their "optics" from -> Zeiss duckduckgo.com/?q=asml+cooperation+zeiss - It's decidedly not easy to recreate all that (be it business connections or all the required technologies and know-how).
    – Limer
    Mar 3 at 0:26

5 Answers 5

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Let's skip the human rights aspects. This is akin to the high tech trade goods restrictions being put on the exports to the USSR and Warsaw pact, but still in nascent, adhoc, non-formalized, form. Huawei's cutoff was a warning shot, so is this.

The US and the Netherlands don't like what they see coming from China and are acting on it. Trump, to give him credit for once, was actually the one who started the ASML ball rolling.

I suppose COCOM, the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls is getting re-activated. Conveniently, the Netherlands were a member. Update: the updated, post-COCOM, framework is actually formalized as the Wassenaar Arrangement:

According to Reuters:

A key tool in this containment strategy: the Wassenaar Arrangement, a voluntary pact among 42 nations to curb the spread of “dual-use” technology, with both commercial and military applications. Under Wassenaar, Washington and its allies have harmonized controls over the flow of chip technology to China.

The most significant restriction is on equipment that uses extreme ultraviolet (EUV) light beams. This light is generated by lasers and focused by mirrors to lay out ultra-thin circuits on silicon wafers. EUV is at the bleeding edge of semiconductor manufacturing. It allows chipmakers to build faster and more powerful microprocessors and memory chips.

The human rights are a nice-sounding justification, and not necessarily a bad one either, but they are just the tip of the iceberg: "it's not us, it's you". They're an easy way to dress up what's inherently a power play.

You don't need 3nm chips to run reeducation camps in Xinjiang.

Reuters puts a slightly different spin on it, which does not mention human rights.

Under pressure from the U.S. government, the Dutch government has withheld granting a licence for ASML to export the machines, which are considered "dual use" goods with possible military applications.

The EUV machines are a bottleneck to manufacturing microchips at the latest generation tolerances in terms of process size. Whether or not those chips get used in negative human rights contexts is secondary to the fact that not being to make them is one point of leverage the West has over China, and one that is not likely to be bypassable very quickly.

Manufacturing microchips is extremely capital intensive and very slow to ramp up actual practical expertise, doubly so if you don't have the upstream machinery. Currently only TMSC and Samsung really master the latest, latest, generation.

Expect more of this to be forthcoming. More background on ASML & China, where Huawei gets specifically mentioned 4 times and human rights 0 times.

In the 80s and 90s, Toshiba for one often got itself caught exporting enabling technologies to Russia. We haven't gotten to formal trade limitations, a la COCOM, but this makes it looks like this is being seriously reconsidered, at least on critical points.

EXPORT CONTROL VIOLATIONS SPARK BAN ON TOSHIBA CHIPS

A BIZARRE DEAL DIVERTS VITAL TOOLS TO RUSSIANS

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I think the key point is the 'in the coming decades' combined with the assumption that the US will act as a protector of human rights whereas China will not.

Currently most cutting edge technology like this EUV machine is made in Western democracies and their close allies. This means that in a situation like the current Ukraine crisis the US have the option to threaten economic sanctions that would stop access to these cutting edge technologies.

If in a few decades a lot of the then cutting edge technologies will come from China, economic sanctions imposed by the US would have a lot less threat to it. So it would be harder for the US to use soft power to prevent human rights abuses.

Note that this is my interpretation of what the Brookings Institution think tank is trying to say, it is what I believe to be their opinion.

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  • Many human rights abuses include surveillance and big data. (See Social Credit System, and note that not all use of data is a human rights abuse. It is just that some big data uses are pretty scary.)
  • Other abuses include backdoors in electronic systems. (See the Huawei accusations).

A country which cannot make their own high-end electronics would be forced to rely on import, and setting up a surveillance system with potential foreign backdoors might be seen as unwise.

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  • -1. China has had far worse human rights abuses in prior decades when digital cameras didn’t exist. I.e. the one child policy was operated successfully long before computers became widespread. Nov 16 at 19:58
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How exactly can keeping chips using EUV technology "pre-empt many worst-case human rights... scenarios in the coming decades?"

Modern missiles, warheads, military jets, and radar systems use microprocessors. Nuclear power plants that produce fissile materials also use computerized systems.

So, if you can end the supply of manufacturing equipment for microprocessors, you can slow down the production of those systems.


Please, note that the West has no monopoly on microprocessor design and fabrication technology. If you check this Wikipedia page, you will see that half a dozen Russian companies or research centers are working on microprocessors' research and development. All of them are funded by the Russian government.

YouTube videos:

News articles:

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  • I guess withholding chips using EUV technology can slow down future generations of "modern missiles, warheads, military jets, and radar systems" but certainly not production of those systems that currently use non EUV-manufactured microprocessors which is probably most of them. I don't think they're refitting fighter jets with new microprocessors every time a new CPU generation comes out.
    – uhoh
    Aug 10 at 20:08
  • Missiles and jets don't need EUV tech - they work just fine on existing equipment. Radars might be improved (due to using analog circuitry that benefits from shrinking), but they do already have radars.
    – user253751
    Aug 10 at 20:26
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    @uhoh, eurasiantimes.com/…
    – user366312
    Aug 11 at 0:05
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    @user253751, upgrading avionics suits is a routine matter in any world-class air force.
    – user366312
    Aug 11 at 0:19
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    @user253751 nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/…
    – user366312
    Aug 11 at 0:22
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Advanced image recognition can make huge impact on de facto human rights, because many demonstrations and mass protests still rely on that the government will not be able to identify exactly all protesters. For some is OK to go into jail for the right reason, but not for all.

The government has access to pass (id) photos. A single modern server running advanced AI stack can put into database the names of all humans that ever appeared in the view of several cameras. Alternatively, high resolution photos of the crowd can be used. The possibilities of the autocratic government then are endless and can expand to actions like restricting carrier possibilities or access to higher education, without even making this public ("the alternative candidate has been selected" - go find out why).

As of 2022, the technology is on the edge of availability: it is almost possible. You need the most advanced chips, and also lots of them, to make this into reality.

See here for the nice case.

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  • -1. China didn’t have any problems suppressing the 1989 protests without computers. Nov 16 at 19:59
  • But with computers, even less problems.
    – Stančikas
    Nov 17 at 2:25

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