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Trade and technology

China aims to strengthen its global influence through standards setting


Published 28 April 2020 | 4 minute read

China is taking an increasingly active role in standards setting for next generation sectors such as 5G, AI, and the architecture of the internet itself. This will have economic, societal and philosophical implications.

The arcane world of international technical standards has become a primary arena in which trade, technological, and even philosophical preeminence is now being shaped. While the US has traditionally led in standards-setting, especially in cutting-edge technology sectors, China has raised its game substantially. Global standards in next generation sectors such as 5G, AI, and the architecture of the internet itself, will increasingly be Chinese or heavily China-influenced.

Why does this matter?

Countries that set standards position themselves at the front of the high technology pack. The US has been the technology leader since the middle of the last century, resulting in US technology standards, protocols and products becoming the formal or de facto standard for the world (think about Microsoft Office, for example). This has led to a mutually reinforcing cycle in which the widespread adoption of US standards has further cemented the primacy of US technologies (and US technology companies), which in turn further solidified the adoption of US standards.

Leadership for the next half century is now being contested. The current – and entirely understandable – preoccupation with the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic should not obscure this reality. Little-noticed work being conducted at an alphabet soup of standards-setting institutions such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will play an outsized role in determining global technology leadership.   

China’s foresight

China had the foresight to recognize the centrality of standards setting to the achievement of its long-term economic development objectives. A strong emphasis on vigorous participation in international standards-setting bodies has been incorporated into its broader industrial plans, including Made in China 2025. China’s Standardization Reform Plan and Five-Year Plan for Standardization have both called for China to become a “standards power” by 2020. 

It is not uncommon for Chinese companies to bring the largest delegations and be the most proactive participants in industry standards-setting gatherings. And the Chinese government has an impressive record in placing its officials in senior positions at key international standards-setting bodies, such as the ITU and the IEC. Chinese-occupied secretariat seats across the panoply of ISO technical committees and subcommittees increased by 73 percent between 2011 and 2020.

Standards reflect values

The ability to set international technical standards not only holds significant economic implications, it is also imbued with broader societal and philosophical overtones. Different national approaches to standards setting can reflect different underlying social and governing philosophies. To the extent one country can secure international acceptance for its standards, it can also potentially embed that country’s values, at least as they pertain to the specific activity covered by the standard.

Existing governance of the internet, for example, derives from the US’ traditional hands-off or light touch approach to regulation, and its philosophical embrace of free speech. China’s vision for the future of the internet is substantially different. China’s proposals on future internet governance and architecture have reflected a much more top-down, centrally managed and highly regulated approach. Rather than a truly “worldwide” web, China’s vision is closer to a series of “national” internets, tightly surveilled and controlled by each national government.

China takes the lead

Indeed, at an ITU meeting last September in Geneva, a delegation from Huawei pitched a remarkably radical proposal for a new internet protocol. In essence, it would create a new architecture for the internet that would replace today’s largely self-regulated web with a new version characterized by centralized rule creation and enforcement. This would open the door to governmental oversight and control over devices connected to the network and empower national “administrators” to deny access. The key catchphrase is “cyber sovereignty” – each country sets its own rules and conditions.

Chinese companies ZTE, Dahua, and China Telecom are also active in helping to shape facial recognition and surveillance standards at the ITU. These standards are especially influential in determining how new technologies are deployed in developing countries. Human rights advocates have criticized some of the standards under discussion, claiming they cross the line from mere technical specifications to policy recommendations which tilt towards an intrusive degree of surveillance, potentially including ethnic and racial profiling.

China Mobile and ZTE have also proposed standards for smart streetlights which reflect ZTE’s design features and would place ZTE in a dominant market position. They also include video surveillance capabilities which the American Civil Liberties Union has cautioned could permit governments to essentially track anyone and everyone in public places.

China’s proactivity – and success – in international standards-setting bodies should not come as a surprise. It is only logical that countries which are at the forefront in developing particular technologies should also be at the forefront in developing the associated standards. Moreover, it is consistent with the role that western proponents of China’s integration into the global economy encouraged China to play: a constructive participant in multilateral governance bodies.

The underlying assumption however was that China’s engagement in these global regulatory bodies would gradually but inevitably bring China into greater conformance with the prevailing (and primarily Western) economic and governance philosophies which traditionally underpinned these institutions. In reality however, China could have a greater impact on these institutions (and the regulations they produce) than vice versa.

Greater urgency required

Criticizing China for its ambitions in setting standards would be counterproductive and hypocritical. A more productive response would be to first clearly recognize what’s at stake.  Deliberations currently unfolding in international standards-setting organizations around the world will establish the terms and conditions under which future technology leadership will be contested, and how – and within what philosophical context – new technologies will deployed. Has the US and its like-minded partners approached these deliberations with the required sense of urgency? Until now, the US has preferred a more organic, bottom-up approach to standards setting which moves at a slower pace than China’s more deliberate and expedient top-down approach. It’s clearly time for a rethink.

In any case though, rest assured that Chinese agencies and companies will not be asleep at the switch. While 5G networks have not even been fully rolled out yet, China Mobile and Huawei have already commenced research on 6G and are active in the ITU’s development of a “future technology vision proposal” which could help influence the subsequent development of 6G standards. The race for the future is already underway. It’s time for the US and other Western nations to get out of the starting blocks.


Author

Stephen Olson

Stephen Olson is a Research Fellow at the Hinrich Foundation with over 30 years of international trade experience. Previously, he was an international trade negotiator in Washington DC and served on the US negotiating team for NAFTA negotiations.

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