China's efforts to influence standards are mostly fake – and flopping
But Carnegie Endowment worries a handful are real, and that the ITU is 'susceptible to manipulation'
China's attempts to influence technical standards groups have mostly been uncoordinated, unsophisticated and unsuccessful – but the US needs to keep watch on Beijing's activities, especially at the International Telecommunications Union.
That's the view of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which published an article on Monday that opens with this observation: "Over the past four years, Washington's foreign policy establishment has stumbled on a new arena for competition with China: international technical standards."
The Biden administration has even articulated a policy that US companies must "fully participate and lead in standards development," and has relaxed some export restrictions to make sure that can happen.
The article's authors, Carnegie Endowment fellow Matt Sheehan and junior fellow Jacob Feldgoise, think the Biden administration's aim of ensuring a strong US presence in standards bodies is worthy – but "fundamentally misunderstands what international technical standards do and how standards development organizations (SDOs) operate."
That misunderstanding is that aggressive intervention will work, because SDOs will mostly achieve US goals anyway.
One reason for that assessment is that while China is increasingly active in SDOs, its representatives aren't very effective. After assessing research and conducting interviews with US participants, Sheehan and Feldgoise opined "In some cases, those Chinese participants are very well-resourced and produce good submissions, and in others, they produce weak proposals that are quickly dismissed by the group.
"But looking across a wide range of industries, they do not appear to regularly act in highly strategic, coordinated ways to give Chinese companies or standards proposals unfair advantages."
Even if China did organize concerted action in an attempt to have a poor standard signed off, the authors think SDOs would push back.
"Forging consensus among technical experts at SDOs requires extensive research, rigorous debate, and frequent compromise," they write. "For important standards with widespread participation, a single company or country is not able to bulldoze their peers and force through harmful standards."
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But the few examples of China trying to win support for a poor standard "tend to occur in SDOs where membership is government-based, such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)."
Readers may remember that in 2022 China tried to use the ITU to endorse New IP – a version of Internet Protocol that added requirements including allowing central control of networks. The ITU is not the body that develops IP standards – that's the job of the Internet Engineering Task Force. China and Russia both supported a candidate for ITU secretary-general who backed New IP. That candidate was defeated, but managed to win over 20 percent of the vote.
Carnegie's authors also point out that if a bad standard makes it through an SDO, they will sometimes ratify another specifically so the market can decide which to implement. Another defence against bad standards is ignoring them.
But while SDOs can defend themselves, Sheehan and Feldgoise wrote that fatigue may be setting in.
"Chinese participants are said to make dozens of low-quality proposals in ITU-T subcommittees, often simply because they can collect government subsidies for each international standard proposed or set."
Those subsidized proposals consume SDOs' resources, weakening their ability to do more productive work.
"As a result, many commercial actors have stopped participating in or adhering to ITU-T standards," Carnegie's fellows write. "Firms' lack of trust in the ITU-T is damaging the general reputation of international standards development."
"Given the weaknesses of the ITU-T, China can push its own domestic standards through the body, and then require that all companies in its domestic market use the 'international' standard – disadvantaging foreign companies."
The authors advocate increased US engagement at SDOs to counter China, with measures such as subsidies for US nationals who attend meetings, tax breaks for R&D that contributes to standards, and faster visa processing for visitors so the US can hold more SDO meetings.
"SDOs that are particularly susceptible to manipulative behavior, such as ITU-T, also deserve heightened attention," the article urges. ®