The CEO trapped in the U.S.-China chip battle

Christophe Fouquet recently took the reins of a little-known company that makes some of the world’s most sophisticated machines. It is also smack in the middle of the chip battle between the U.S. and China.
Christophe Fouquet recently took the reins of a little-known company that makes some of the world’s most sophisticated machines. It is also smack in the middle of the chip battle between the U.S. and China.

Summary

Europe’s ASML makes some of the most advanced chip-making machines. Its CEO must balance Western demands to curb China’s access while keeping a foothold in one of its biggest markets.

In a series of articles this week, Wall Street Journal reporters from around the world go inside the escalating global chip battle. At stake: leadership of an industry expected to double in size by the end of the decade to $1 trillion.

Christophe Fouquet recently took the reins of a little-known company that makes some of the world’s most sophisticated machines. It is also smack in the middle of the chip battle between the U.S. and China.

His job involves maintaining an increasingly precarious balance: honoring demands from the West not to sell ASML Holding’s most sophisticated chip-making equipment to China, while keeping the Chinese market open for less-advanced machinery—one of its biggest businesses.

Chief Executive Fouquet, a 51-year-old Frenchman, is said to be technically sophisticated, wary of politics and eager to keep a low profile. That is also a pretty good description of how ASML long operated as a company—only now it doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring geopolitics.

For many years the company didn’t need to worry about political restrictions on where its machines could be sold, “and then suddenly that became one of the most important topics on the entire planet," Fouquet said in an interview.

Netherlands-based ASML produces highly complex machines that use light to print tiny designs onto silicon, giving the company a key role in the production of microchips found in everything from smartphones to cars, medical devices and satellites. It holds a monopoly over some of the world’s most advanced chip-making machines, which are crucial in the production of the most advanced chips used to power artificial-intelligence systems.

That expertise has led to U.S. pressure to limit exports to China amid growing concerns about the country’s economic might and its support for Russia.

ASML already faces restrictions from the Dutch government on selling its more advanced machines to China, including those that use extreme ultraviolet light, known as EUV. The U.S. separately prevents ASML from selling certain machines containing American-made components to specific Chinese chip factories, and it recently asked the Dutch government to add restrictions on the servicing of some of ASML’s tools in China.

“ASML is in a position it doesn’t want to be in, which is at the center of the technology race between China and the West," said Chris Miller, a Tufts University professor and author of a book about the global chip battle.

Fouquet, a veteran of the semiconductor industry with a master’s degree in physics, said ASML’s response to political concerns has been to seek to educate officials about the company’s technology and the possible repercussions of restrictions.

Some policymakers’ decisions have been partly influenced by fear and a lack of understanding, Fouquet said, though he acknowledged that for officials, “it’s difficult to get all of this right."

“Our role is not to make politics; it’s not to decide what is right, what is wrong," he said.

Restrictions could have unintended consequences, he warned. For example, stopping ASML from servicing certain machines in China wouldn’t prevent those machines from making chips. Instead, ASML would no longer know where all of its tools are and what is being done with them.

“If we are not there, then we lose control," he said.

At ASML, Fouquet has been a proponent of global collaboration in technology, warning against the inefficacy of fractured supply chains, according to people who have worked with him. During his time at the company Fouquet has appeared to be more at home tackling technical challenges than dealing with political matters, the people added.

Further curbs on exports to China are a concern for ASML. China generated 49% of the company’s system sales in the first quarter as demand for less-advanced machines remained strong there despite a broader, cyclical downturn.

Restrictions could also give China more of an incentive to develop its own high-end technology, Fouquet said. “The more you put restrictions, the stronger you invite people to do it themselves," he said.

Evidence of that came last year when Huawei Technologies unveiled its new Mate 60 Pro smartphone, which uses advanced domestically produced chips that U.S. curbs aimed to prevent China from manufacturing. The smartphone launch led to hand-wringing among U.S. officials over the effectiveness of U.S. export controls, although Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in April said Huawei’s chip was years behind the U.S. competition.

It is possible to manufacture advanced chips like the ones Huawei used without access to ASML’s higher-end machinery, but the process is more expensive and difficult to do on a large scale.

Another challenge facing Fouquet is sustaining ASML’s dominance.

“They have the most advanced tools in the world, but people will be asking, ‘What’s the next one after that?’" said Simon Coles, an analyst at Barclays.

ASML’s latest machines are called High NA EUV systems in reference to their high numerical aperture—a measure of the ability to collect and focus light. Intel was the first company to buy one of the new machines, which cost more than 350 million euros, equivalent to about $381 million.

The company has said its next technological leap could be a machine that can print even smaller features on chips, which the company refers to as Hyper NA. Fouquet said customers wouldn’t need such futuristic machines for years to come.

In the interim, ASML is forecast to benefit from rising demand for smaller and more powerful chips, as well as U.S. and European spending aimed at significantly boosting chip manufacturing.

Fouquet took over in April from ASML’s longtime leadership duo of CEO Peter Wennink and Martin van den Brink, its former chief technology officer, who steered the company through a period of rapid growth.

Fouquet first joined the company in 2008. He said discussions about the CEO job started about two years ago.

Fouquet said he took the job because he believed his technical background and relationship with customers could help drive the company forward. Still, he checked with his wife before taking it on—if she wasn’t OK with it, it was “going to be complete hell," he said.

An opera fan whose favorite composers include Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, Fouquet compares his job at ASML to that of a conductor leading an orchestra: He surrounds himself with sharp musicians and everyone has an important part to play.

Van den Brink said he remembers interviewing Fouquet for a job at ASML in 2007. Fouquet was interested in the company because he was looking for a good environment to raise his children, and wanted to learn, van den Brink said.

Fouquet has six children, the youngest of which is seven months old. When recently asked what keeps him up at night, he said his response was, “Well, I have to feed my daughter."

ASML’s company culture encourages both its staff and business partners to challenge each other—and Fouquet is no exception, according to Frank Rohmund, president of the optics unit at Zeiss Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology. ASML owns a 24.9% stake in the German business, whose technology was crucial in developing its most advanced machines.

While Fouquet has fostered close ties with Zeiss, including by joining staff at Oktoberfest and other events, he doesn’t back down from difficult interactions, Rohmund said.

“We have a lot of discussions, and they are sometimes tough. But when the discussion is closed, the meeting is closed, the relationship is always very positive," he said. “And this is a strength of Christophe’s."

Write to Kim Mackrael at kim.mackrael@wsj.com, Asa Fitch at asa.fitch@wsj.com and Yang Jie at jie.yang@wsj.com

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