The eventual decline of the West’s dominance in the standards domain has offered an opportunity for China to play a bigger role in finalizing and setting technology standards. The Chinese state has gradually increased its technical capabilities and has worked toward strengthening the technology sector in the country during the last two decades. The domestic private technology sector of China, supported by the state, has gained immense heft on the international stage. Now, it looks to play an active role in advocating for global technical standards and a worldwide governance mechanism for governing emerging technologies. In this way, China hopes to boost domestic economic growth and project geopolitical influence.
The Chinese government argues that a revamp of the international technology governance framework mechanism is needed to break the existing hegemony of the West. President, Xi Jinping has categorically stated that global rules cannot be imposed by “one or a few countries.”
China’s leaders believe that the process of standard-setting is the sign of a leading technological power. Increased economic and geopolitical influence is at the core of China’s pursuit to dominate the international standards stage. Along with this, addressing vulnerabilities and lapses in the existing governance framework by tweaking the standard-setting process to the state’s advantage is also an important objective for the Chinese government.
A state-driven project to understand the nuances behind standard setting and the working of international standards organizations specializing in technology helps both the Chinese state and their private companies to gain a foothold in the process. With all that in mind, the “China Standards 2035” project was conceived by the Chinese leadership, as they saw immense political and economic value in setting technical standards.
A major impetus for China’s involvement in the standards process lies in the fact that developing countries that have established themselves in the technology sector have had to work under the umbrella of Western rules and regulations governing major technologies. In the case of telecommunications, the Chinese have had to pay large sums of money to get the license for patents related to networking technology developed by major hardware manufacturers such as Qualcomm and Cisco. This put the Chinese telecom sector at a disadvantage. But with Huawei licensing patents related to 5G technology, the private sector as well as the state has received enormous economic benefits by monetizing these technology patents.
With the transformation of the economy, the Chinese look to technological innovation to upscale and drive manufacturing processes. Among their primary objectives is to reduce reliance on foreign technology by developing their own capabilities. There has been increased investment by the state in domestic firms in the hope of China controlling the governing framework. This, at the same time, can drive the nation’s technological innovation and remain competitive in the global markets.
In terms of economic opportunities for China, the establishment of a Chinese-backed international standard helps the domestic technology industry grow at a rapid pace and get easier access to international markets. Interoperability between the Chinese products and services with those of the West due to a common standard helps China improve the volume of its exports.
China Standards 2035 is one of the state’s flagship projects in the coming decade. While “Made in China 2025” aims to increase China’s manufacturing output and cement its position in the global supply chains of critical technologies, the standards project aims to control the governing framework for the use of these technologies. Influencing and setting technology standards can help China achieve its aim of developing and controlling the use of any strategic future technologies.
China Standards 2035 aims to cover standards related not only to critical technologies but also to different sectors like agriculture and manufacturing. The project looks at how China can play an important role in the formulation of future standards related to critical technologies and put forward Chinese proposals for the creation of a different standard.
This also looks like an objective for China to create its own technological bloc by exporting standards through cross-border agreements. Replacement of an existing, accepted standard by a regional variant can create fissures in the technology sector. China aims to create more affordable and easily adoptable standards for its allies, particularly for those developing nations in which China has significant investments. This potentially increases the leverage China has when advocating for one of its standards to be chosen as the next international technology standard. These standards serve as China’s weapon to eventually displace the West in the high-stakes technology battle.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), along with its major infrastructure projects, has also exported China’s technical standards to all its allies. The showboating of China’s economic power and technological supremacy has steadily been on the rise, with China increasing its presence in standards developing organizations (SDOs) and other international fora responsible for finalizing technology standards. This has helped China to gain a foothold in the workings of standards organizations and ensured that high level positions in these organizations are under the influence of the Chinese leadership.
China now has the economic clout and the political will to influence the standard-setting process at the international stage. But the increasingly centralized and authoritarian regime of the CCP has created a highly restrictive technological environment. There have been unending restrictions placed on citizens’ activities on the internet and the usage of certain technologies. The CCP’s infringements on the personal rights of Chinese citizens have dented the credibility of a possible global technological governance framework that might be supported by the Chinese. In order for China’s ambitious standards project to succeed, this must be addressed by the leadership.
There doubt still lingers over whether a Chinese-supported technological governance framework would be accepted worldwide, especially in the West. There is also the question of whether China will change its stance on how its own state governs and regulates the use of certain technologies. This makes it harder to quantify the extent to which geopolitics might play a role in the standard-setting process of emerging technologies. But what is certain is that China is going to try influencing the standards process at international fora so that they can eventually control the usage of specific strategic technologies.
Governments across the globe must recognize the role of emerging technologies and the influence they will yield in the future. Technologically adept states like India and Israel, who are some of the biggest contributors to the global technology ecosystem, are still novice players when it comes to wielding influence in technology standards. These states need to invest in innovation and developing these critical technologies. Bridging the gap between technology and foreign policy must be one of the priorities for all technically advanced states.
The entire process of setting global technical standards never has been and is never going to be a purely technical exercise. While standard setting has long been considered a benign process, the rise of Chinese influence has made the entire process important for both policymakers and multinational tech corporations alike. However, the standard setting will continue to be politically driven with or without the involvement of the Chinese. Hence, a need for understanding and evaluating the geopolitical implications of these standards can help states in making rational decisions related to emerging technologies.