Breaking the Internet: China-US Competition Over Technology Standards

Recent Features

Flashpoints | Economy | East Asia

Breaking the Internet: China-US Competition Over Technology Standards

High-tech middle powers like Japan and South Korea will be crucial to avoiding a “splinternet.”

Breaking the Internet: China-US Competition Over Technology Standards
Credit: Depositphotos

The increasingly adversarial nature of the China-U.S. relationship is rapidly bringing forth the potential for a “splinternet” – a grim bifurcation of the cyber world. The meritocratic processes of tech standard creation, as well as the interoperability of such standards, are all coming under threat from strategic efforts to further ulterior, national agendas.

Technical standards, born out of necessity in a globalizing world, have become critical to the ordinary functions of society. The principal aims and benefits of these standards are global interoperability, compatibility, and connectivity, underpinning all international trade. In essence, standards set the “rules of the game” that all players must abide by. It is these invisible standards that enable the use of technology across borders and systems; standards are what allows an American phone to connect to Wi-Fi the same as it would in Japan. When such standards fail to become universalized, they cause inefficiencies; an everyday example is the incongruence of power socket designs across countries. The advent of 5G, artificial intelligence, the metaverse, and other frontier technologies brings an urgent and historic weight to tech standard development.

Traditionally, standards have been left in the hands of private sector experts and technocrats, who focused on establishing the highest quality standards through meritocratic processes. Lately, however, standard setting has become central to China’s strategic goals of becoming a “cyber great power” by 2049 – a term first coined by Xi Jinping in 2014. In 2018, the Standards Administration of China (SAC) initiated “China Standards 2035,” formalizing and centralizing China’s strategy to have native standards become the global norm.

China’s strategy has been two-pronged, including de jure and de facto tracks. The de jure, or formal, standard setting happens on the global scale at Standards Development Organizations (SDOs), such as the U.N.-backed International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Though these bureaucratic institutions work slowly, influence at this level could potentially ripple through the entire ecosystem of international technology trade. To this end Beijing has placed Chinese nationals into senior leadership positions, encouraged Chinese tech companies to submit high volumes of proposals, and spurred Chinese companies to vote as a national bloc – as opposed to judging a proposal on merits alone. This strategy is made apparent in China’s 2017 Standardization Law: “the State encourages participation in international standardization events. Commendation and reward shall be given to those who made remarkable contribution to standardizing work.” Chinese tech giant Huawei is now the leading proposer of 5G standards, presenting more than double the proposals of the United States’ Qualcomm. Houlin Zhao, a Chinese national, is the head of the ITU and an advocate for both Huawei and the Belt and Road Initiative.

Concurrently, Beijing has more quickly influenced standard setting through a de facto approach. It does this by creating standards on the ground through exporting technology and infrastructure projects, skirting SDOs and international regulation. As China exports its technology, Chinese standards seamlessly become embedded into the technological matrix of the recipient country, often furthered by standard harmonization requirements and memoranda of understanding (MOUs). Moreover, once a market builds a digital network using Chinese technology, they are more likely to continue using Chinese tech in the future; technology from other countries would likely use non-Chinese, and hence incompatible, standards. In late 2021, the Chinese city of Nanning hosted the second China-ASEAN International Standardization Forum, where Chinese and ASEAN leaders stressed standard connectivity in the region as well as in the implementation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

For its part, Washington’s withdrawal from international fora in recent years and its increasingly adversarial stance toward Beijing have also edged tech standards closer to fracture. For standards to be effective, it is vital that everyone is involved; exclusion or withdrawal of any one party undermines the entire process. In 2019, the United States sanctioned Huawei, which made any interaction with Huawei near impossible for U.S. companies. The move, however, proved counterproductive. Confusion around the technicalities of the ruling meant that U.S. companies could no longer participate in standard setting discussions where Huawei was present. This meant the absence of U.S. representation in key standardization decisions for over a year until the Department of Commerce corrected this mistake. At the same time, U.S. sanctions prohibiting China’s use of American semiconductor technology forced Beijing to turn inwards and supercharged their focus on domestic innovation. In both cases – when the U.S. excluded itself and China – a policy of unnuanced exclusion had unfortunate implications in the standardization game, where universal inclusion and connectivity rewards all.

As geopolitical challenges threaten to divide future standards, one solution is to get more players – ideally high-tech middle powers – involved. Offering alternative infrastructure projects and engaging in multilateral cooperation could mitigate the risk of unilateral standard exporting by any one nation. A greater showing of technocratic experts from digitally advanced countries like South Korea and Japan could potentially nudge SDOs away from recent geopolitical influences and back to their traditionally meritocratic roots. Simply having more voices at the table would also likely balance and moderate the conversation away from adversarial two-sidedness. Technology powerhouses South Korea and Japan, as well as certain European countries, are ideally poised for this role.

But despite South Korea being home to tech giant Samsung – the world’s largest supplier of smartphones – and Japan being the world’s third largest economy, both nations have surprisingly modest representation in the international standard-setting sphere. Compared to China’s 31.5 percent, South Korea has proposed just 8.4 percent of 5G-related cell-phone standards. Japan has contributed just 0.39 percent. As their supercharged tech industries begin to cede market dominance to new Chinese and otherwise foreign players, Japan and South Korea are also losing out in the standardization game. This is a prime opportunity for these economies to reassert their positions.

Additionally, Seoul, Tokyo, and similar middle powers have a rare chance to straddle the China-U.S. divide without risking their own relationships with either side. Ideology aside, South Korea and Japan can fly under the banner of meritocracy, in the name of ensuring fair, competitive standards and reclaiming a deserving share of the decision-making power. For the size of their influence in the global technology sector alone, Seoul and Tokyo would be well justified in wanting a greater seat at the standardization table.

With the exponential growth of technology, standardization will become an ever more important arena, not just for China-U.S. cyber competition, but also for defining the digital landscape of the future. If the goal is to develop high-quality standards that are interoperable across the globe, then the strategic approaches of both Washington and Beijing are misinformed. In recognition of these challenges, one potential answer instead lies in high-tech middle powers like Seoul and Tokyo, who now have the opportunity to shift tech standard setting in a safer direction.