For countries seeking to respond to Chinese standards activities, the primary challenge will be to not overreact. Despite an increasingly prevalent narrative that China has figured out how to “dominate” or “manipulate” international standards-setting processes, the reality is much more mundane. The primary effect of the Chinese government’s growing emphasis on the importance of standards is that Chinese organizations are more empowered and incentivized to participate in standardization than they have been in the past. The simplest and most effective way for competing nations to keep pace will be to ensure that their own domestic participants are similarly empowered.
The coordinated efforts of Chinese companies in the development of 5G standards looms large in discussions of undue Chinese influence on standards, but this case represents far more the exception than the rule. China’s technical advantage over other countries in 5G, which gave companies such as Huawei and ZTE significant leverage in standards discussions, is not the norm in most technologies. What’s more, the voluntary nature of international standards-setting processes means that in most cases, countries or companies are able to opt out of standards that cause them concern; rarely is interoperability as non-negotiable as it is in telecommunications. Increased Chinese engagement in international standards bodies is certainly a reality; sudden Chinese supremacy in these bodies is not.
A recent study run by the National Institute of Standards and Technology gave U.S. companies and industry organizations the opportunity to weigh in on how concerned the United States should be about Chinese participation in standards development. As the Carnegie Endowment summarized, only a small minority of private sector respondents expressed concerns. Far more prevalent than alarm about undue Chinese influence was consensus that the U.S. government could do more to support U.S. engagement. Relevant measures could include subsidizing the participation of companies or industry organizations in standards development processes—an expensive undertaking for which the Chinese government provides significant support. At least as important is to remove barriers to participation that currently prevent or deter some U.S. organizations from participating in standards development processes, for instance export control-related restrictions that prevent U.S. companies from engaging in any discussions where blacklisted foreign companies are present.
China is sure to continue pursuing its own interests in international standards bodies, and other countries should stand ready to counter this. But a productive response needs to be based on an understanding of how standards processes work and in what ways they can be skewed, not on a kneejerk reaction to fears that China is suddenly pulling all the marionette strings. Many of the ways in which China could unduly benefit from standards are continuous with long-standing concerns about Chinese involvement on the international stage, such as Chinese domestic regulatory structures that hinder international firms’ market access. Others are only outgrowths of other trends, such as China’s increasing sophistication in scientific and technological research and development. A holistic approach to technology competition must recognize and address how these challenges are interconnected, not overestimate how important (or susceptible to influence) standards development processes are on their own.
Read the full article at China File.