China slaps export curbs on chipmaking metals in tech war warning to U.S., Europe

China is restricting the exports of two metals key to the manufacturing of semiconductors, its commerce ministry said late Monday, a warning to Europe and the United States in their escalating technological trade war over access to microchips.

These new regulations — imposed on grounds of national security — will require exporters to seek a license to ship some gallium and germanium compounds starting Aug. 1, China’s commerce ministry said. Applications for these export licenses must identify importers and end users and stipulate how these metals will be used.

This move is part of an intensifying global battle for technological supremacy — with China as the world’s largest source of both metals, according to a European Union study on critical raw materials this year. It also comes just as U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is preparing to visit China later this week.

“This move will have a limited impact on global supply given the targeted scope,” Eurasia Group analysts, Anna Ashton, Xiaomeng Lu and Scott Young wrote in a note.

“It is a shot across the bow intended to remind countries including the United States, Japan, and the Netherlands that China has retaliatory options and to thereby deter them from imposing further restrictions on Chinese access to high-end chips and tools,” they added, pointing to the lack of outright bans for specific countries or end-users.

At a regular press conference in Beijing on Tuesday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mao Ning reiterated the country’s export controls are in accordance with the law and are not targeted at any specific country.

Shares of Chinese germanium producers soared on Tuesday in anticipation of rising prices for the raw materials, which may now face at least a short-term supply disruption.

On Tuesday, Yunnan Lincang Xinyuan Germanium Industrial surged by the 10% limit, closing at its highest in about 15 months in Shenzhen. Yunnan Chihong Zinc & Germanium ended up 6.1% at its highest level since mid-May in Shanghai. Both outperformed the 0.2% gain for the CSI 300 index of China’s largest A-share listings.

Limited short-term impact

South Korea’s industry ministry and Taiwan foreign ministry officials said Tuesday China’s curbs would have little short-term impact, Reuters reported.

Reuters further reported the South Korean industry ministry official as saying a possible expansion of curbs to include other materials cannot be ruled out.

Gallium is a soft silver metal used to produce compound semiconductor wafers for electronic circuits, semiconductors and light-emitting diodes, while germanium is used in the manufacturing of fiber optics to transfer data and information.

“The economies of scale in China’s extensive and increasingly integrated mining and processing operations, along with state subsidies, have allowed it to export processed minerals at a cost that operators elsewhere can’t match, perpetuating the country’s market dominance for many critical commodities,” Eurasia Group analysts said.

“But past Chinese attempts to leverage that dominance by restricting exports have reduced global availability and raised global prices. Higher prices have in turn spurred foreign competition by making mining and processing ventures outside of China more cost-competitive,” they added.

Festering feud

In October, the U.S. launched sweeping rules aimed at cutting off exports of key chips and semiconductor tools to China. The measures are believed to have the potential to cripple China’s ambitions to boost its domestic technology industries. The U.S. has also lobbied key chipmaking nations and allies, like the Netherlands and Japan, to introduce export restrictions of their own. The Netherlands responded Friday with new export restrictions on advanced semiconductor equipment. This will effectively bar ASML from exporting to China. But these latest Dutch curbs do not specifically target ASML, one of the most important semiconductor companies in the world.

Some countries are also trying to secure their own supply chains and build up their domestic chip industries, focusing on areas where they are traditionally strong. Last week, a fund backed by the Japanese government proposed a 903.9 billion yen ($6.3 billion) acquisition of semiconductor materials giant JSR.

Semiconductors are some of the most important technology products. They go into everything from smartphones to cars and refrigerators, and are also seen as key to military applications and advancing artificial intelligence.