The Measure of a Country: America’s Wonkiest Competition with China

August 21, 2020
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There will probably never be a movie about international standardization. There are no gunfights, and desk-thumping monologues would be littered with incomprehensible acronyms. Yet standardization may prove to be the most consequential competition between China and the United States. China is working to turn a vital but esoteric tool of international cooperation into a mechanism to secure the Chinese Communist Party’s future, and the United States should have a plan to respond. China Standards 2035, expected to be issued later this year, is an aggressive strategy to make China a leader in international standardization. Leveraging its state-supported economic model, manufacturing prowess, and centrally led standardization system, Beijing is attempting to become the leader of global technical and commercial development to further expand its global political power.

The U.S. government generally does not direct standardization, allowing it to emerge instead through voluntary industry consensus. This system is intended to generate innovation and test competing ideas, allowing technology to define the standard. It has given the United States substantial influence in technical discussions and allowed U.S. companies to become global powerhouses. Chinese domination of international standardization risks stifling innovation and holding back better solutions in cases where Beijing has another agenda. To combat this risk, the United States should establish a national strategy for standardization and work with its allies and, when possible, China to protect the current consensus-based system.

Crucial and Competitive

Standards are the core of interoperability in the international commercial system. Standardization is largely determined by independent organizations operating under their own rules. International bodies, including the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission, coordinate with national representatives to develop globalized standards that vary from specific technical requirements to guidelines and govern everything from film speed to laboratory calibration. Proposed standards are drafted in consultation with companies, academics, and governments and are established via consensus following debate and voting.



International standards are not laws, and individual countries are not obligated to comply with them. World Trade Organization members are obliged to follow practices outlined in the Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement, but that agreement intentionally provides for “regulatory autonomy.” For statutory or political reasons, countries can establish distinct standards. In the United States, standardization is driven by industry with limited government intervention. European governments have a stronger regulatory framework but also largely avoid driving standards.

China is increasingly active in the international standardization system. Beijing is pursuing leadership in standardization organizations, hosting meetings, and aggressively proposing new standards. China has been promoting surveillance standards and pursuing standards in drone technology. A European study noted that many proposed Chinese standards were intended to shape agendas and expected to fail, suggesting China is seeking to dominate debates while improving its proposals.

The Chinese standardization system is state-centered but has hierarchical tiers of standardization and multiple categories of standards. This structure allows Beijing to direct internal standardization that serves as a de facto barrier to external competitors but has also confused China’s companies and bureaucracy. Beijing has been reforming its standardization efforts and hopes to establish “first-tier companies” that will be industry leaders capable of establishing technical standards in their fields. Chinese firms also pay enormous sums in proprietary standard licensing fees, a condition the government seeks to reverse. Beijing’s attention to standardization has a decisive logic. The Chinese Communist Party has pinned its legitimacy, and hence its survival, on economic performance and making China strong internationally.

Rebuilding the System

In 2015, China launched Made in China 2025, an effort to enhance domestic research and develop advanced capabilities in 10 technology sectors, including advanced communications technology, aerospace, and biopharmaceuticals. Begun in 2018, China Standards 2035 is an evolution to streamline and better coordinate underlying standardization efforts. In April 2020, the Global Times declared, “Standard-setting competition is an inescapable challenge facing China in the future world market.” Internal bureaucratic wrangling among Chinese standardization officials and a long implementation tail mean that China Standards 2035 might not emerge as expected and will almost certainly not result in immediate, dramatic changes. That does not mean, however, that the rest of the world should be complacent.

It is unlikely China intends to undo international standardization practices. Well-established standardization fora would be difficult to supplant, and the practical aspects of forum discussions would be difficult to manipulate. Instead, Beijing is actively seeking to improve the conditions for its emerging technology relative to its competitors and thus subvert the intent of international standardization structures while maintaining their operational construction. This would allow China to claim it is maintaining best practices even as it undermines their nondiscriminatory intent. State-directed efforts aiding the success of technology companies, in conjunction with broader technological investment and international activity underwritten by the Chinese government to ensure the spread of the technology, could promote the “commercial” aspect to underscore the acceptance of standards. The Wall Street Journal estimates China has already provided $75 billion just for Huawei.

China knows this strategy will take years of methodical effort. Few Chinese companies will become industry leaders overnight, but success in standardization compounds to future success. Leapfrogging industrial standards becomes increasingly expensive as technical advancement is consistently built on the existing standards. While China Standards 2035 is expected to focus on specific technologies, China is also targeting standardization across multiple fields. It is moving to take the lead in “green tech,” and standardization will be central to quantum computing, digital currency, seabed mining, bioelectromagnetics, bioprospecting, and commercial operations in space. Through the promotion of “discourse power,” the idea that controlling a narrative can grant meaningful advantage, Beijing has gained influence in international discussions on issues from the Arctic to transgenic organisms.

The Key Points on National Standardization Work in 2020 articulates a push for the creation and promotion of standards in mobilizing not only the Chinese state but all society. The document urges an array of education-focused initiatives, from nationwide youth standardization competitions to new standardization-focused university majors. China has also been overt about the role of the Belt and Road Initiative in improving Chinese commercial enterprises and recognizes that it presents a means for the integration of Chinese standards globally. China has written standards into contracts and can further integrate specific standards by pushing commercial purchases or creating a necessity to integrate with Chinese systems.

The Chinese doctrine of “military-civil fusion,” a state-directed effort to integrate commercial technical advancement into the Chinese military, also raises questions about the potential implications of equipment and systems built on Chinese standards. The modernization of the People’s Liberation Army is intended to be largely completed by 2035, and it has been increasing its recruitment of civilian researchers. Military-civil fusion is intended to improve commercial and military cooperation and rapidly expand the military’s capabilities in targeting an opponent’s operating systems across multiple domains. Chinese strategy seeks to control information and data flows during a conflict. China’s expanding technical expertise advances this objective, and the globalization of Chinese standards would potentially give the People’s Liberation Army deep insight into its opponents’ systems. Avoiding this liability would require substantial resources to review vulnerabilities or develop technology that could have limited interoperability worldwide.

Ensuring the Space for Competition

China has been developing its standardization policy for years. While the United States and its allies are aware of the threat, there is no organized governmental response. The American National Standards Institute, a private organization supporting the U.S. standards system, published the United States Standards Strategy in 2015, revising a 2000 document. The strategy includes steps for governmental action but is primarily focused on internal improvements to the U.S. standardization system. Likewise, the National Science and Technology Council has established sectorspecific strategies but has not established a comprehensive strategy to align interagency efforts to support the integrity of the international standardization system.

U.S. strategy should not focus on edging out Chinese companies and interests — this would be antithetical to the success of the current system and essentially impossible as Chinese firms gain strength. Instead, any strategy should focus on a trio of goals: expand and reinforce U.S. technical expertise to maintain competitiveness in advanced technical fields; prevent vacuums in international standards that China could move to fill unimpeded; and avoid creating de facto competing standards, where an “international standard” competes with a “Chinese standard” and Beijing is able to use its money and influence to move companies and countries toward its standard.

In order to serve these three goals, Washington should first establish and regularly reevaluate governmentwide prioritization of strategic technology and support programs aimed at facilitating growth. The U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy has already enumerated the administration’s research and development priorities, but this list is not tied to a specific whole-of-government strategy. Washington should work toward supporting and funding coordinated, multiagency technical efforts like the National Quantum Initiative Act, which called for the establishment of a 10-year plan on the acceleration of quantum information science. The proposed Endless Frontier Act presents an opportunity to invigorate scientific research and, crucially, would periodically refresh the list of focus areas. At around $100 billion in new funding over five years, the act would be an important step to competing with Beijing’s expenditures.

Next, the United States should engage international allies and expand multilateral cooperation on standardization. Much of the world has an interest in preserving the transparency and openness of the existing system of international standards. The United States announced that it will join the G7 Global Partnership for Artificial Intelligence despite concerns that it could constrain growth. Nevertheless, dividing cooperation efforts by technology risks inefficiency and multiple bureaucratic chains. The United States should seek to lead coordination on strategic technology through a new “technology alliance” or through existing international organizations. Washington should also explore access to technology and proprietary standards for developing countries to counter hypercompetitive Chinese prices. Senior-level engagement in international fora should be coupled with advocating and supporting increased participation in technical committees and working groups across standardization organizations. Increased multitiered cooperation could rapidly coordinate standardization on technologies to promote widespread usage.

Third, the U.S. government ought to enhance research and development spending within the United States. Many American firms welcome Chinese investment as crucial to funding research, even as the investors potentially gain access to valuable emerging technology. Governmental efforts should seek to supplant external funding, such as through a proposed expansion of the Research and Development Tax Credit or a modification of the Alternative Simplified Credit. These modifications could include standards work as eligible research and development to encourage focused expenditures. This should dovetail with reversing declines in federal research and development spending and expanded technical assistance to public-private partnerships. Government researchers working in collaboration with the private sector should flag emerging sectors where standardization is likely to become necessary. Moreover, the U.S. government should aid standards development early to support technical aggregation and prevent the need to regain ground.

Congress should protect and expand the budget for the National Institute of Standards and Technology and other science agencies. Crucial to establishing and maintaining standards in everything from cement to exoskeletons, the institute has seen proposed budget reductions of over 20 percent in each of the last four years. Similar cuts have been proposed across most U.S. science agencies. While Capitol Hill has largely preserved science funding through recent budget cycles, tighter fiscal constraints in the wake of COVID-19 could make cuts more likely.

In addition, the United States should strengthen the awareness and understanding of standardization in official technical considerations. Training civil servants on standardization practices, foregrounding existing official standards, and giving increased consideration to the sources of proposed standards during government contracting, rulemaking, and appropriations processes will enhance technical debates and avoid embedding potential points for exploitation.

Washington needs to review and strengthen existing statutory standards. U.S. statutory standards should reflect the most current technical conditions and incorporate an awareness of potential technical evolution to prevent walling off outdated technology while ignoring emerging strategic concerns. Moreover, the U.S. government should examine existing export control regimes to ensure they are addressing emerging technologies. The United States has begun taking steps to limit the risk of intellectual property theft and to control advanced technology transfers. Yet China is already making independent progress outside transfers, and some U.S. officials are rightfully worried overcorrection could stanch innovation emerging from cooperation. The capabilities of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States should be reconsidered, particularly regarding outbound technical investments and noncontrolling foreign investment in domestic firms.

The U.S. government ought to preserve America’s advantage in attracting global talent to learn and research in the United States. Research shows that many foreign-born researchers want to stay in America and that restrictive visa policies damage economic growth. Easing immigration tied to strategic technologies could be coupled with fast-track citizenship and expedited family visas to support researchers remaining in the country. Simultaneously, visa applicants should receive a rigorous examination of their ties to foreign governments or militaries to properly screen and limit knowledge outflows.

Finally, the United States should work with China when possible. Beijing may be willing to reach mutually beneficial technical compromises in some cases. U.S. officials should consider providing technical consultation to Chinese standards proposals when the opportunity arises to potentially align these proposals with U.S. values and interests.

Competition Is Not Conflict

While military conflict between the United States and China is still avoidable, competition over standardization is already underway. The establishment of a national standards strategy would highlight America’s commitment to an open and transparent standards-setting process in line with existing norms. A strategy pinned to multilateral cooperation would reinforce that Washington does not intend to politicize standardization but rather to ensure the emergence of the best technical options.

Working to develop the best technology does not guarantee that technology’s widespread adoption, and the United States should not be picking favorites. Washington should, however, support the coordination and integration of emerging technologies. It should be fostering scientific discoveries with like-minded international partners. It should be active in international fora to ensure that proposed Chinese standards are challenged and the technology and science scrutinized. Washington should not be working to prevent legitimate Chinese-origin standards emerging from open discussions and competition in the marketplace. China’s presence still allows standards to emerge from transparent, nondiscriminatory debate, and Chinese research spurs innovation elsewhere. It is, however, vital to prevent state-led subversion of international mechanisms.

The United States should adopt a national strategy on standardization to advance its own interests — not because China already has one, and not as a counterpunch to Beijing. While China Standards 2035 is likely to be ambitious, it will not cover the gamut of rapidly transforming technologies. A defensive U.S. response could be undermined by the global rejection of efforts to simply keep China out. Any strategy should be focused on enhancing U.S. advantages and protecting the existing model. Standardization’s openness is both its success and its vulnerability. Ensuring that it remains open is a necessity.



William Morrissey leads Global China and Maritime Futures for the National Maritime Intelligence-Integration Office. He is completing his doctorate in international affairs at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project. This article represents his personal views and does not reflect the views of the U.S. government.

John Givens is an assistant professor in the School of Government and International Affairs at Kennesaw State University. He teaches courses on China and Asia, as well as international law and organization. He has published on Chinese foreign policy, online politics in Asia, the Malaysian media, and smart cities. His current book project examines lawyers that sue the Chinese state.

Image: Defense Department (Photo By Glenn Fawcett)