With mistrust pervading the U.S.-China relationship, it seems that nearly any Chinese action stokes suspicions of malicious intent, especially anything involving advanced technology. As 5G, AI, and emerging technology have become buzzwords, policymakers have started to pay more attention to a previously obscure piece of the technology development process: technical standards. In particular, U.S. officials have been concerned about China’s increased participation in technical standards development work and the government’s forthcoming plan, China Standards 2035. In a climate of heightened fear and uncertainty, it is easy to see boogeymen lurking behind every corner. As policymakers seek to separate true threats from long shadows, it is important to distinguish Chinese posturing and proclamations from real risks. In short, don’t believe China’s own hype.
As policymakers have become increasingly concerned about the potential connection between technical standards and China’s technological advantage, focus on China Standards 2035 has heightened. However, in order to assess these concerns, it is important to first understand the international standards system. The technical standards community lives by the tenets of industry leadership, openness, rules-based, consensus decision making, and voluntary adoption of international standards. The whole system rests on the premise that any interested stakeholder can come to the table to cooperate and compete, proposing contributions that enable products and services to work for consumers around the globe while safeguarding against undue dominance of any one player. Consumers reap the benefits of this everyday—for example, international standards ensure that your laptop can connect to Wi-Fi in the United States and Japan; or that an HDMI cable can plug into any TV, regardless of brand name. That’s the goal of standards development—to enable interoperability across markets, so that consumers and companies can take full advantage of the latest technology at competitive prices.
In an increasingly bifurcated world, it might be surprising to learn that global companies have long encouraged their competitors, including Chinese companies, to bring their contributions to the table at international standards development organizations. The idea behind including all players is to foster global market access and avoid islands of technology that hurt consumers. However, when policymakers noticed a significant uptick in Chinese company participation in emerging technology standards work, particularly in technical committees dealing with 5G and telecommunications, they understandably became concerned. As contributions from a few large Chinese companies increased, they sometimes seemed to overwhelm the agendas of working groups. Yet, in this instance, policymakers have mistaken quantity for quality, and numbers alone don’t lead to market dominance.
Technical standards work is a competitive process, in which contributions are accepted by consensus among subject matter experts, and others are weeded out. To encourage participation in standards bodies, the Chinese government provides monetary incentives [PDF] for contributions. These incentives are also based on quantity, not quality. Upon closer inspection, Chinese company contributions have not been uniformly impressive [PDF], and sometimes are not true standards contributions at all. There are, of course, very good technical contributions too from Chinese companies that have invested in their product development and learned how the standards system works.
So, no need to panic or suspect a Chinese takeover of international standards, right? Enter China Standards 2035.
Apparently, the Chinese government has not learned from the international public relations failure of Made in China 2025, which laid out China’s objectives to take over as the leader in a number of critical manufacturing sectors, including advanced technology. There were admittedly some concerning elements of Made in China 2025, including government subsidies. Still, Made in China 2025 was largely intended for a Chinese audience—to inspire companies to build, innovate, and yes, dominate—but it was more of a pre-game motivational speech than a directive. China Standards 2035 follows the same model of setting benchmarks for success, such as increasing the number of Chinese standards that become international standards and influencing and leading international standards bodies. This type of verbiage only feeds the fear that China is seeking to “rewrite international rules.”
Ironically, the Chinese government’s proclamations and U.S. policymakers’ interpretation belie foundational misunderstandings of standards. International standards are not required rules, laws, or even norms. Companies choose the most appropriate standards for their products, which change with rapidly developing technology. The notion that the Chinese government is going to swindle the world’s best engineers into adopting voluntary standards that will shape the technological landscape in China’s favor, and continue to do so with every technological change, is a significant reach.
U.S. and multinational technology companies remain strong competitors and leaders in their fields and in the associated development of technical standards. However, China is a real competitor, and as Chinese companies advance we should expect to see that reflected in their participation (and success) in international standards bodies. Successful contributions can help companies’ products reach more consumers and markets and enable them to stay competitive in an ever-changing environment. But drafting more standards alone does not shape the next generation of technology. That starts with investment in research and development, incentivizing innovation, and growing workforce skills. Standardization with open, rules-based processes makes that technology accessible and interoperable. Both elements are important to technological competitiveness, and they work in tandem.
Instead of solely focusing on China Standards 2035 and trying to prevent China from implementing yet another strategic plan, policymakers should work with the private sector to double down on research and development and STEM education. Unfortunately, numerous U.S. policies, including $370 billion of tariffs on Chinese goods, have forced U.S. companies to divert resources from these important investments to rework supply chains and determine how to stem the costs of tariffs. Similarly, company leadership needs to ensure that they continue to invest in technical standards experts. These professionals require a unique skill set of technical expertise and the ability to work across companies in a large and complex bureaucracy. It requires significant travel and consistent, long-term participation in order to fully learn the ropes and gain influence. The results of these investments are not immediate, but they are essential to the continued success and leadership of technology companies.
There are plenty of areas for concern regarding China’s role, behavior, and influence in the global order—the Chinese government is a competitor, not a friend. Still, that doesn’t mean that everything China does is with malicious intent, or that yet another long-term strategic plan will yield its aspirational objectives. Government proclamations such as China Standards 2035 are intended to be part inspirational, part aspirational, and part chest-puffing propaganda. If policymakers want U.S. companies to remain competitive with China, they should not allow themselves to be distracted by believing their competitor’s hype.