EletiofeSemiconductor Giant ASML Has a New Boss, and a...

Semiconductor Giant ASML Has a New Boss, and a Big Problem

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When Christophe Fouquet takes over as CEO of Europe’s most valuable tech company on April 24, he will inherit not only a single firm, but also the leadership of an entire industry responsible for a critical ingredient of modern life: chips.

Netherlands-based ASML makes one of the world’s most complex machines, used by chipmakers like Intel and TSMC to manufacture the advanced microchips required for the functioning of today’s smartphones, cars, and data centers. Fouquet will take over leadership of ASML’s 40,000 or so employees and manage a sprawling network of more than 5,000 specialist suppliers, such as Germany’s Zeiss and Trumpf, whose lasers and mirrors enable ASML’s machines to project minuscule patterns onto microchips small enough to be measured in nanometers (one millionth of a millimeter).

Fouquet, a 16-year ASML veteran, will have to maintain the company’s technological edge. Its most advanced machines have no competitors. “I have worked with Christophe for years, and look forward to continuing our great relationship as we deliver leading-edge lithography solutions,” says Ryan Russell, corporate vice president for Foundry Lithography Technology Development at Intel. But Fouquet, who has sold himself publicly as the continuity candidate, will also have to steer ASML through an escalating geopolitical power struggle revolving around chips.

“The company must manage its position at the center of technology tensions between China and the West,” says Chris Miller, author of Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology. Fouquet declined to speak to WIRED for this story.

Those tensions became public in 2018, when the US began pressuring the Dutch government to prevent ASML’s technology from being sent to China, a major market for the company’s machines. By the following year, ASML was restricted from selling its most advanced extreme-ultraviolet lithography systems to Chinese clients. Instead of reversing that strategy, US president Joe Biden has expanded it, extending restrictions to ASML’s less advanced equipment. This year, the US stepped up pressure on the Dutch to stop ASML from even servicing tools it has already sold into China.

In June, Fouquet spoke out in favor of international cooperation in the chip industry. “We do not believe in ASML that decoupling is possible. We believe this will be extremely difficult and extremely expensive,” he told Nikkei Asia.

“There’s a sense among some that the Dutch government didn’t stand up for ASML enough, and that the Dutch government folded to American pressure and basically restricted ASML because the Americans wanted it to,” says Tobias Gehrke, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Yet analysts doubt that any single European country would be able to resist that type of pressure. “ASML is too big for the Netherlands,” says Rob de Wijk, founder of the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. “This is a power play, and the individual countries, including Germany, are simply too small for this game.” Instead he is part of a growing contingent—including ASML’s outgoing CEO—calling for export licenses for strategic sectors to be handled by the European Union in order to protect companies like ASML from being pushed around between superpowers. “Let Brussels do it and let them do the power politics.”

ASML’s Fouquet is likely to be less concerned about export restrictions shrinking its market; ASML shipments to China made up a record 49 percent of total sales in the company’s latest results, reported on April 17. But company insiders are worried that US actions could prompt China to invest in potential ASML competitors, according to author Marc Hijink, who profiles the North Brabant–based company in his book Focus: The ASML Way. “They’re very much afraid that in the end, when China won’t have access to ASML machines, they will be even more motivated to build their own lithography system that might compete with ASML’s,” he says. “They think that’s the point the US is missing.” An ASML competitor may take time. “Lithography is hard. It’s expensive. From a scientific point of view, it’s a challenge to build a machine like that. But it’s not impossible,” adds Hijink. “As they like to say at ASML, what can be done in Brabant can also be done in Beijing.”

ASML’s options to stop Chinese competitors from becoming an issue are limited. “Of course, they try to lobby, to get more wiggle room,” says Hijink. ASML representatives met with US export policy chief, Alan Estevez, earlier this month. But Fouquet will have to decide whether the Netherlands is the most strategic place for the company to be, as technology tensions increase. Under the previous CEO, Peter Wennink, ASML threatened to leave the country, citing anti-immigration rhetoric after the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) won the November election. Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf reported that ASML was considering France as an alternative base, citing a single unnamed source. “If we cannot get the people here, we get the people somewhere else,” CEO Wennick told Politico in January.

ASML’s success means it is caught in the crosswinds of the US-China power struggle. For many, Fouquet’s best defense will be alerting a wider audience to its cause. “I hope the next CEO’s agenda will be to really double down on making ASML’s case a European case,” says Gehrke. “This is not just a matter for the Dutch government.”

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