A Biden administration effort to untangle global chip supply snarls is facing resistance from lawmakers and executives in Taiwan and South Korea, complicating attempts to resolve the bottlenecks hurting industries from automobiles to consumer electronics.
The US Commerce Department late last month asked companies in the semiconductor supply chain to fill out questionnaires by November 8 seeking information pertaining to the ongoing chip shortage. While the request is voluntary, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo has warned industry representatives that the White House might invoke the Defense Production Act or other tools to force their hands if they don’t respond.
The issue has become particularly thorny in Taiwan, home to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), which accounts for more than half the global contract chipmaking market. That dominance has already prompted rivals like Intel Corp. to call for more domestic investment and spurred governments in the US, EU, Japan and China to mull efforts to bolster their own chip industries to reduce their reliance on the world’s most advanced semiconductor manufacturing hub.
“TSMC absolutely will not hand over sensitive information, particularly client data,” Sylvia Fang, the company’s general counsel, told reporters on Wednesday. Three of TSMC’s top 5 customers are American, with the largest Apple Inc. accounting for a quarter of total sales. “TSMC is still assessing how to respond.”
Smaller peer United Microelectronics Corp. declined to comment on how it may respond to the US query, though Chief Financial Officer Liu Chi-tung told Bloomberg News that the company will protect customers’ non-public information.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy on Wednesday released a statement expressing concern over the scope of the US request. Other media including Korea Joongang Daily also cited unidentified people at local chipmakers as saying they may have a hard time complying with the requests.
The potential standoff comes as chip shortages are going from bad to worse. Lead times in the industry—the gap between putting in a semiconductor order and taking delivery—rose for the ninth month in a row to an average of 21.7 weeks in September, according to Susquehanna Financial Group. That is by far the longest since the firm began tracking the data in 2017.
In the US questionnaire, chipmakers were asked to comment on inventories, backlogs, delivery time, procurement practices and what they were doing to increase output. Commerce is also requesting information on each product’s top customers. But the department has come to realize that many are struggling with the questionnaire and it is preparing an FAQ to help companies respond, TSMC’s Fang said.
“If the U.S. is looking to resolve supply chain issues, we will see how we can best assist them,” Fang said. “We have done a lot to help, including increasing output of auto chips and prioritizing auto customers to a certain degree.”