WASHINGTON U.S. officials defended their high-tech export policies toward China against recent criticism, insisting that current controls can keep sensitive lithography equipment and the chips they produce out of the hands of the Chinese military.
Export applications for lithography gear are a small percentage of the more than 10,000 license applications filed annually with the Department of Commerce. The department said it has so far received nine license applications to ship lithography and related test equipment to China in 2002. All have been approved.
U.S. export control laws prevent officials from disclosing the names of companies shipping equipment to China, but Texas Instruments Inc. confirmed recently that it received an export license linked to a foundry alliance with China's Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (Shanghai). The company said the alliance was formed to allow SMIC to fabricate "non-critical" interconnect layers for TI's 0.13-micron chips.
"Our view is that the system is really working the way it should," a Commerce Department official said today (Sept. 26) in an interview. "I think we're pretty consistent."
Commerce officials have said license applications are considered on a "case-by-case basis." Critics have countered that it is unclear what criteria export officials are using to consider license applications. Another problem is that the Commerce, Defense and State departments all have a say in approving licenses.
The Commerce official said the agencies rely on two key parameters spelled out in U.S. law and regulations when considering license applications to ship lithography equipment to China. The first is, What is the likelihood that chips produced using the equipment could be diverted to China's military. The other consideration is whether the process technology itself could be diverted.
Federal regulations also spell out prohibited uses for chips produced using U.S.-supplied lithography equipment. They are: "power projection" weapons designed to extend the reach of China's military; electronic warfare and anti-submarine warfare; intelligence gathering; and air superiority weapons.
The Commerce official said license applications are generally approved unless there is evidence that process or chip technology could be diverted to the military.
Export officials have come under increasing pressure from some U.S. companies who warn that they are losing equipment sales in China to European and Asian competitors. Many critics note that the United States is virtually alone in enforcing an international agreement called the Wassenaar Arrangement, which restricts the flow of dual-use technologies to sensitive states like China.
"Most members view China differently than we do," the Commerce official said. "This is taken into account when applications are reviewed."
Officials said Washington is unable to block China sales by leading lithography suppliers like ASML (Veldhoven, Netherlands) and Japanese vendors Canon Inc. and Nikon Corp. However, they said export agencies could intervene through government-to-government contacts.