The avowed intention of Chinese President Xi Jinping to make China a “cyber great power” is not to be taken lightly. Early in his tenure, Xi announced his determination to allow indigenous Chinese technology to “catch up and overtake” the West. Since then, international attention has focused on China’s rapid advancements in advanced technologies such as AI, quantum computing, 5G networks, the Internet of Things, new materials, and biology. synthetic, to name a few. But what seems to go largely unnoticed is a two-pronged state-led strategy to gain strategic and structural advantage by setting international technology standards.
The first of these leads is a deliberate push to gain influence in international technical standards bodies (also known as standards development organizations, or SDOs). These bodies can be either multilateral organizations made up of government representatives or multi-stakeholder bodies in which industrial and technical experts can participate. In both types of OEN, the Xi administration has quietly made efforts to place Chinese nationals in key leadership positions, chair important technical committees and working groups, and get Chinese companies to vote in block on Chinese proposals.
The process of negotiating and approving technical standards was developed primarily by the historical leaders in technology – the United States and Europe – as a largely industry-driven process. They operated on the premise that the process should be an open, bottom-up, private sector-led model. For the Chinese government, however, setting technical standards is a key part of a national strategy to promote international standards that advance Beijing’s interests. Chinese industry operates in SDOs in accordance with guidelines established by the state to advance nationally defined goals. These goals are not only commercial but also strategic, like Beijing’s concept of “cybersovereignty” – the push to erect national borders in cyberspace that block the free flow of information.
A second track of Beijing’s strategy to take advantage of international technological standardization runs along the Belt and Road, in particular its “Digital Silk Road”. Beijing is using the Digital Silk Road projects to establish de facto standards from scratch through the export of its technologies. Drawing inspiration from Western companies, these exports create “path dependencies” that essentially lock customers into the use of Chinese technology by making it difficult and expensive to switch to an alternative product with different specifications. Beijing is going further by signing agreements with governments along the Digital Silk Road to harmonize standards, fund local standards certification centers, and translate standards developed in Chinese into local languages.
Another feature of the Digital Silk Road is the export of bundled or stacked technology packages – think of ‘smart city’ systems – that automate municipal functions and can include facial recognition systems, big data analysis, 5G telecommunications and AI sensors. As these are emerging technologies for which standards still need to be taken into account, the spread of Smart Cities is a plus for China’s normative dynamic. China can signal the widespread adoption of its technologies as indicators of a high-quality standard, which strengthens the position of Chinese companies in negotiations on international standards and increases the market value of their products.
The effect of this two-pronged approach goes far beyond competitive business advantage. The export of Chinese surveillance and censorship technology provides authoritarian governments with new tools of repression. Governments seeking to control their citizens’ access to the Internet support Beijing’s “cybersovereignty” paradigm, which can lead to a balkanized Internet riddled with incompatibilities that hamper international trade and slow technological innovation. And when cyber sovereignty is combined with pressure from Beijing to redefine human rights as the “collective” rights of society as defined by the state, authoritarian governments gain a shield of impunity for violations of universal standards.
For Western countries to compete effectively with Beijing’s two-pronged approach to setting technology standards, they must first determine, in consultation with industry, what their priorities should be. Technologies and standards are not all created equal, and resources are not endless. Thus, the starting point is to select emerging technologies of strategic importance, assess the types of technical standards that concern them and determine where and how these standards will be set. Government-industry and government-to-government coordination is essential for both prioritization and for effective action in global SDOs.
The US government would do well to develop an interagency strategy on global Internet governance, reflecting the imperatives of US national security and competitiveness, that would inform and reflect standardization priorities. This could include the designation of a single U.S. government coordinator responsible for outreach and liaison with industry, civil society, and technical experts. Increased funding for agencies concerned with standards and support for increased agency and private sector participation in SDOs would be helpful, as would incentives for the creation of the next generation of technology standards professionals.
Internet governance could be an important component of collaborative initiatives in groups like the Quad and the G7. This could start by encouraging active and coordinated participation in SDOs, including competition for managerial positions, and discouraging unique national standards among partner countries.
It is fitting that China plays a role in shaping technological governance commensurate with its growing status as a technological leader. As China expands its influence through the Digital Silk Road and in SDOs, its ability to shape global technical standards is set to increase. Given the importance of these standards to economic competitiveness, national security, and freedoms anchored in an open internet, it’s time for the United States and its partners to step up the game.