US reportedly pressures South Korea over memory chip sales to China

It looks like the US is calling in even more favours among its allies in its bid to cripple China’s technology capabilities.

The FT reports the White House has asked the South Korean government to pressure its domestic chip-makers not to increase their supplies to China if that country decides to take action against American company Micron. So this will mainly be in reference to the memory chip market, where Micron is the third biggest global player behind Koran firms Samsung and SK Hynix.

This doesn’t appear to be official US policy, yet, but the leak to the FT comes as the South Korean President is about to visit the US, so it seems fair to assume this is a controlled leak from the US government, designed to increase the pressure on Korea to do what it’s told. The report claims this is the first time the US has asked an ally to enlist its domestic companies for such purposes.

At the end of last month China initiated a cybersecurity review of Micron products selling in China. Judging by the Google translation of the announcement, the wording is almost a parody of stated US reasons for acting against companies like Huawei, citing potential security risks posed by the products. Since memory chips presumably present much less of a potential security threat than CPUs, and only Micron is being investigated in this respect, this feels like a clear tit-for-tat move by China.

Assuming the FT story is accurate, this represents just the latest escalation of America’s trade cold war with China, which is showing an increasing disregard for any collateral damage is causes. Last week the US fined domestic company Seagate £300 million for selling to Huawei. This coincided with the passing of a new law that will name and shame any country the US considers an ally if they are found to use any Huawei or ZTE kit.

If China does decide to sanction Micron, there doesn’t seem to be any national security pretext for preventing Samsung and SK Hynix from taking its Chinese sales. Instead, this is further evidence that the original stated reasons for US trade belligerence against China were a smokescreen. Surely America is simply trying to hobble the technological and economic progress of its biggest geopolitical rival. In so doing it is increasingly having to call in favours from its allies but the supply of these is presumably not limitless.


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