By Heejin Lee*
The US–China technology rivalry became overt when a dispute erupted over 5G and Huawei after Washington designated Huawei as an embargoed company on its ‘Entity List’ in May 2019. At the centre of the dispute are standards underpinning the fifth generation of mobile network technology. China is overtaking the United States — the traditional mastermind of international standards in information and communications technology — in setting the standards for 5G.
Chinese companies hold one third of the world’s 5G-related ‘standard-essential’ patents — patents that claim an invention must be used to comply with an industry standard. Holding 5G patents is important because 5G extends beyond conventional mobile communication in emerging technological sectors. Autonomous cars, artificial intelligence (AI), smart factories and smart cities are all connected through 5G networks.
As 5G standards are adopted, essential-patent owners will earn more profits and exert growing power over the path of standardisation and innovation in related technologies. This is why the United States takes China’s increasing influence over international standardisation 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 top-level White House strategic document shows that Washington is suspicious of China’s standardisation drive. By promoting ‘a set of common standards for secure, resilient and trusted communications platforms’, the United States aims to work with allies and partners to push back against ‘discriminatory’ industrial standards made by China.
This vigilance is being strengthened under US President Joe Biden who published a paper in 2020 emphasising that the rules of the international economy should not be rigged against the United States. The paper argues that the United States should continue its ‘70-year’ role in writing the rules of trade and technology. He also calls for cooperation between likeminded countries ‘in confront[ing] China’s abusive behaviour’.
Standards are one of the pillars of global rule-setting. The Biden administration’s 100-day review of supply chains for products of strategic significance ‘identifies key areas where government could play a more active role in setting standards and incentivising high-road business practices’. China similarly sees standards as a strategic vehicle through which to achieve a new world order. Its Belt and Road Initiative emphasises standards cooperation and Beijing has signed 52 standards cooperation agreements as of September 2019.
China’s growing influence over standardisation and the US response illustrates that such standards are not just a tool for technical, industrial or economic competition — they are also a geopolitical consideration. This confrontation will intensify as China formulates its ‘China Standards 2035’ vision — a sequel to Beijing’s strategic industrial policy, ‘Made in China 2025’.
But while Made in China 2025 pursues dominance in the production of goods, China Standards 2035 aims to control the rules governing emerging technologies. Since ‘global technical standards are still being formed’, Chinese companies and organisations want to enhance their ‘right to speak’ in setting international technical standards for emerging technologies of the fourth industrial revolution and digital transformation like 5G, AI and quantum computing.
State-centric approaches to standardisation are now being demanded by US lawmakers. Washington is known for being hands-off and industry-driven, but reports by key think-tanks emphasise the role of the government in both domestic and international standardisation. The ‘US Leadership in AI: A Plan for Federal Engagement in Developing Technical Standards and Related Tools’ report published by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology recommends that Washington play a role in overturning China’s standards-driven dominance of emerging technologies.
The US government officially expressed its support for the US candidate vying for the position of International Telecommunications Union Secretary-General which has been seated by the Chinese Secretary-General for the last eight years. Biden came forward to assert his support for this endorsement. This demonstrates that the United States has changed its attitude toward international standardisation and now recognises its importance.
The decoupling of global supply chains is often identified as a consequence of the US–China technology rivalry. A recent report by the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China notes ‘growing concern’ about the decoupling of technical standards and data governance. The politicisation of standard-setting — ‘an essential tool to facilitate trade and interoperability’ — risks fragmenting global standards and disrupting trade and innovation.
If the US–China conflict over technology and technical standards leads to the decoupling of international standards, companies may have to manage two separate global supply chains — each governed by its own independent system of standards. In order to maintain a sound global economy, the United States, China and the international community should strive to avoid this situation.
*About the author: Heejin Lee is Professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University, and Director at the Centre for Australian Studies and at the Center for Converging Industries and Standardization.