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Report |The Geopolitics of Global Technology Standards: Key Issues and Solutions

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The views expressed are solely those of the author (s) and not of Oxford Global Society.

Claire Milne, Jufang Wang

International standards for the so-called critical and emerging digital technologies (CETs, such as 5G and AI[1]have increasingly become a focus of geopolitical competition. While international standards are a tool for ensuring the interoperability and interconnectivity of products and services, reducing costs, and improving safety, they generally confer economic advantage to the technology-owning companies[2] and strategic advantage to countries where these companies are based.

In the last decade, especially in recent years, major global economies such as the US, China, and the EU, have all attached greater strategic importance to international standards-setting. Among them, China has stepped up its efforts since around 2015, when the government issued a strategic industrial plan[3] that encouraged Chinese companies and institutions to increase their participation in the process of international standards-setting. Since then, Chinese actors have greatly increased their engagement with Standards Setting Organisations (SSOs) in terms of active contributions, drafting of proposals, and leadership roles within SSOs.[4] This reflects China’s ambition and aspiration to become an international standards-setter, rather than a follower. Similarly, the EU published a new Strategy on Standardisation in February 2022, aiming to promote EU’s leadership in global standards, advancing its values and provide EU companies with a “first-mover” advantage.[5] The Strategy states that “Europe’s competitiveness, technological sovereignty, ability to reduce dependencies and protection of EU values…will depend on how successful European actors are in standardisation at international level”.[6] In the US, several proposed bills in the Congress are aimed at enhancing US leadership in global technology standards. For example, the Technology Standards Task Force Act of 2021[7] directs the government to establish a task force on setting emerging technology standards. Some US think tanks have also advocated that the US should renew its leadership in standards.[8]

While it is expected that countries will vie for more say or control in international standards-setting, a notable development is that the EU and the US have been repeatedly emphasizing collaboration and coordination among “like-minded” partners regarding the standardisation of CETs. Such collaboration has already been witnessed in the frameworks of the G7[9] and the EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC). The TTC has a dedicated working group on technology standards, which is tasked to develop approaches for coordination and cooperation in CET standards, including AI.[10] These new developments raise a series of questions:

  • What are the key issues or causes behind the current geopolitical tensions around the standardisation of CETs?
  • Should democratic values, or any values, be incorporated in international standards-setting?
  • Will the EU, the US, and other “like-minded countries” (such as South Korea and Japan) work outside the existing international standardisation framework regarding the CETs? What are the consequences if this does happen—not only for international standards-setting, but also for the “rest of the world”, especially consumers, and people from the Global South? 
  • How much room is there for cooperation between the West and China regarding technology standardisation, given that some CETs such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) do involve national security and ethical concerns? What are possible solutions to international cooperation around CET  standardisation?

In September 2022, the Oxford Global Society organised a webinar,[11] inviting some of the leading policy analysts and industry experts from major standards-setting countries/regions to discuss the key issues of the current geopolitical tensions around, and possible solutions to, international standards-setting for CETs. This report derives, to a large extent, from the webinar expert discussion (referred to as “expert discussion” below).[12] In preparing for the report, we also drew on a wide range of research and literature and exchanged views with other policy analysts and industry experts.

Based on the above sources, we have identified two major causes behind the geopolitical tensions around international standards-setting: the spill-over effect of US-China rivalry and the trend of trying to incorporate democratic values in standards, especially in AI and other sensitive technologies. In this report, we will first examine each of the causes, discussing whether it is possible to go beyond the US-China rivalry and to separate values from technical standards. This will be followed by discussing how a multi-stakeholder standardisation framework may help to offset the impact of the geopolitical tensions on global standards-setting and the “rest of the world”. In the conclusion, we will provide some policy recommendations on how to strengthen international cooperation around CET standards-setting and to avoid a forking or splintering digital ecosystem.

Please download the PDF version to read the whole report.

[1] In the context of this report, the term CET arose from the United States’ October 2020 National Strategy for CETs, which ended with a list of around 20 technologies in this category. A revised list was issued in February 2022 by the new White House team; it stresses ICTs and their applications in broad fields including engineering, manufacturing and energy.

[2] This is especially the case when a company holds the IPR for a widely needed standard.

[3] This Chinese industrial plan is often dubbed “Made in China 2025”, as it set a series of goals for China’s manufacturing sector by 2025.

[4] Sorina Teleanu (2021). Report: The geopolitics of digital standards: China’s role in standard-setting organisations. 

[5] European Commission (2022). New approach to enable global leadership of EU standards promoting values and a resilient, green and digital Single Market. 

[6] European Commission (2022). An EU Strategy on Standardisation: Setting global standards in support of a resilient, green and digital EU single market (p.1).  https://ec.europa.eu/docsroom/documents/48598.

[7] https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/1498

[8] Walter G. Copan and Kirti Gupta (2022). Renewing US leadership in standards. https://www.csis.org/analysis/renewing-us-leadership-standards

[9] Ministerial Declaration, G7 Digital and Technology Ministers’ Meeting (28 April 2021).

[10] European Commission (2021). EU-US Trade and Technology Council Inaugural Joint Statement. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/STATEMENT_21_4951

[11] The webinar was chaired by Prof. Robin Mansell (Professor of New Media and the Internet at LSE). Speakers included: Prof. Milton Mueller (Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology), Mr Thomas Li (President of Industry Standardisation at Huawei), Prof. Andrea Renda (Senior Research Fellow at CEPS), Dr Scott Kennedy (Senior adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at CSIS), Dr June Park (Fung Global Fellow at Princeton University), Dr Baisheng An (Associate Fellow at CAITEC, China Commerce Ministry), and Ms Claire Milne MBE (senior visiting Fellow at LSE).

[12]A video recording of the webinar is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWdJs8wF4cM&t=5s and an edited transcript of the expert discussion is available here: http://oxgs.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/GMT20220912-edited-transcript.pdf