By Heejin Lee*
The technological rivalry between the US and China was on full display when a dispute over 5G and Huawei erupted after Washington designated Huawei as an embargoed company on its ‘Entity List’ in May 2019. At the heart of the dispute are the standards that support the fifth generation of mobile network technology. . China is overtaking the United States, the traditional mastermind of international information and communications technology standards, in setting the standards for 5G.
Chinese companies own a third of the world’s 5G-related ‘essential standard’ patents: patents that state an invention must be used to meet an industry standard. Owning 5G patents is important because 5G extends beyond conventional mobile communication in emerging technology sectors. Autonomous cars, artificial intelligence (AI), smart factories, and smart cities are all connected through 5G networks.
As 5G standards are adopted, essential patent holders will reap more profits and wield increasing power in the path of standardization and innovation in related technologies. This is why the United States takes China’s growing influence over international standardization so seriously. The word ‘standards’ appears 10 times in the Trump administration’s 2020 report on the ‘United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China’.
The recurrence of a technical term in a high-level White House strategy document shows that Washington is suspicious of China’s push for standardization. By promoting “a set of common standards for secure, resilient and reliable communications platforms,” the United States aims to work with allies and partners to push back against “discriminatory” industry standards created by China.
This surveillance is growing stronger under the presidency of Joe Biden, who published a document in 2020 emphasizing that the rules of the international economy should not be rigged against the United States. The document argues that the United States should continue its ’70-year’ role in drafting the rules of trade and technology. It also calls for cooperation among like-minded countries ‘to confront[ing] China’s Abusive Behavior’.
Standards are one of the pillars of establishing global rules. The Biden administration’s 100-day review of supply chains for strategically important products “identifies key areas where the government could play a more active role in setting standards and incentivizing high-level business practices.” China also sees the rules as a strategic vehicle through which to achieve a new world order. Its Belt and Road initiative emphasizes standards cooperation, and Beijing has signed 52 standards cooperation agreements as of September 2019.
China’s growing influence over standardization and the US response illustrate that such standards are not just a tool for technical, industrial, or economic competition, but are also a geopolitical consideration. This confrontation will intensify as China formulates its vision of ‘China Standards 2035’, a sequel to Beijing’s ‘Made in China 2025’ strategic industrial policy.
But while Made in China 2025 pursues dominance in the production of goods, China Standards 2035 aims to rein in the rules that govern emerging technologies. Since “global technical standards are still being formed”, Chinese companies and organizations want to enhance their “right to speak” by establishing international technical standards for emerging technologies of the fourth industrial revolution and digital transformation such as 5G, AI and computing. quantum.
US lawmakers are now calling for state-centric approaches to standardization. Washington is known for being non-intervening and industry-driven, but reports from key think tanks emphasize the government’s role in both national and international standardization. The report ‘U.S. Leadership in AI: A Blueprint for Federal Participation in the Development of Technical Standards and Related Tools’ published by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology recommends that Washington play a role in overthrowing China’s mastery of emerging technologies based on standards.
The US government has officially expressed its support for the US candidate vying for the post of Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union, which has been held by the Chinese Secretary General for the past eight years. Biden stepped forward to affirm his support for this endorsement. This shows that the United States has changed its attitude toward international standardization and now recognizes its importance.
The decoupling of global supply chains is often identified as a consequence of the technological rivalry between the United States and China. A recent report from the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China notes “growing concern” about the decoupling of technical standards and data governance. The politicization of standards setting, “an essential tool to facilitate trade and interoperability”, risks fragmenting global standards and disrupting trade and innovation.
If the conflict between the US and China over technology and technical standards leads to decoupling from international standards, companies may need to manage two separate global supply chains, each governed by its own independent system of standards . To maintain a strong global economy, the United States, China, and the international community must work to avoid this situation.
*About the author: Heejin Lee is a professor at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies and a director at the Center for Australian Studies and the Center for Converging Industries and Standardization.
Source: This article was published by the East Asia Forum. A version of this article was first published here on Global Asia.