China’s political and economic rise has led the European Union, the United States, and other powers to change their approach to the development of international standards in major areas of technology. This is a domain largely dominated by the West – but one in which China has become more strategic and assertive in recent years, and where it now enjoys greater influence.
The development of standards was long mostly the preserve of private sector actors and technical experts. But, in light of the accelerating geopolitical great power competition, Western states have shifted towards greater state intervention in standards development: for example, the EU and the US have agreed on a Strategic Standards Information mechanism to share information and respond jointly to what they term “common strategic issues” (read: China). Meanwhile, China’s Belt and Road Initiative specifically aims to promote Chinese technology standards in partner countries. More broadly, in recent years China has increased its presence in standardisation processes and secured more technical leadership positions in key standards development organisations (SDOs).
Why standards matter
International technology standards are by and large still developed through cooperation among private companies or national standards representatives. There exists an incredible multitude of SDOs whose role is to agree technology-specific standards such as common technical designs, procedures, and principles that allow for the interoperability of different technologies or that set minimum levels of safety or reliability. For example, Wi-Fi today is the globally dominant standard for wireless local networks. Thanks to agreed international standards, consumers can easily connect their devices to wireless routers regardless of brand or their location in the world. Standards therefore facilitate technological advancement, economies of scale, and international trade.
Crucially, companies or countries that successfully shape technical standards are often well positioned to shape entire technological ecosystems. Generally, standards matter most in technologies that provide platforms or that are a central element in such ecosystems, where interoperability is key. The internet is a good example of technology of this nature.
The normative, ethical, and security dimensions of standards are also of central importance. In this regard, technologies closer to the application level – which people use directly – tend to have the most direct normative influence. The standards for the fairness or trustworthiness of AI systems are a live and well known example where normative and ethical dimensions loom large. And in terms of security, standards themselves both determine the security of a technology – such as the level of cyber-security of 5G telecommunications or smart city technologies – and reflect and contribute to economic power and hence the potential development of strategic dependencies. This in turn may pose a risk to economic security, such as European dependencies on China for rare earths or lithium batteries – areas in which China is also seeking to expand its standardisation influence.
China and international standards
Certainly, given the significant power yielded by leadership in tech standards, closer scrutiny of China’s engagement is warranted. The country’s growing role in standards development is predominantly the natural result of its technological rise, as new technical standards tend to be shaped by technological leaders. Nevertheless, Western observers express concern about China undermining established international standards development processes to promote both its technologies and its autocratic values. Concerning behaviours include efforts to remodel the global internet into something more amenable to autocracies. China has attempted not only to export its “great firewall” approach, but also to change global internet governance, standards, and protocols to further facilitate state control. There have also been instances of coordinated voting to push through Chinese standards.
But these are more exceptions than the norm. To date, China has largely played by the rules: like their Western peers, Chinese standards contributors make proposals they deem advantageous and advocate these in the complex consensus-seeking negotiations (among competitors) that characterise standards development. Simply put, China over the years has become a leader in many key technologies and is now well positioned to co-shape international technology standards thanks to the technical merit and economic power of Chinese companies. China is indeed also gaining a greater footing and securing more leadership positions in SDOs; but the West still dominates international standards development. In any case, the governance structures of most SDOs and the nature of technical standards – standards only become widely adopted if they offer real economic or technical advantages to an international multitude of companies and users – inhibit the global spread of technical standards that are politically motivated or the result of manipulated standards development processes.
What the EU should do
Nevertheless, EU policymakers should closely and continuously monitor China’s increasing role in leading SDO working groups and standards contributions in technologies and areas critical to the EU – including rare earths and lithium batteries, but also AI and 5G. They must do this to ensure emerging standards are based on technical merit, represent the result of fair, transparent, and consensus-based processes, and pose no risk to fundamental rights or security.
Crucially, rather than oppose Chinese standards engagement writ large – and thereby risk the fragmentation of the international standardisation system – European policymakers should closely scrutinise the standardisation processes in critical technology areas and governance dynamics in key SDOs. Policymakers must then find a good balance between addressing challenges resulting from China’s strategic, and at times aggressive and manipulative, engagement, and not over-politicising – or over-geopoliticising – international standards development, which still mostly functions to the advantage of Western economies and international trade.
This will be no easy task. Such scrutiny is an extremely complex endeavour because of the sheer number of SDOs – several hundred exist, alongside the many working groups within SDOs dedicated to specific technologies (the International Organization for Standardization, the ISO, alone has more than 250 technical committees). Their governance structures and standards development processes are also diverse and complex, and are generally led by private sector representatives or technical experts with no or limited government presence.
A platform for constant vigilance
Any such continuous observation must therefore establish clear priorities and effectively collect and combine information on specific and structural dynamics in international standards development. The proposals in the EU’s 2022 standardisation strategy – which was also a response to China’s increasing influence in standards development – are either inadequate or have not yet materialised. Its High-Level Forum started its work in 2023 but its primary focus is inside the EU and lacks civil society and (foreign) policy expertise. The standardisation strategy proposes a mechanism for member states and national standardisation bodies to share information and monitor international standardisation, but it similarly lacks broader participation. Importantly, neither of these initiatives seems to make use of digital tools for comprehensive data collection.
To address this, the EU should establish a permanent platform that combines broad stakeholder engagement (including private sector specialists, civil society, academia, and technical and policy experts) with digital solutions that continuously scrape available international standardisation data. This platform must set priorities with regard to which standardisation activities it primarily monitors and evaluates. Clearly, the EU should pay specific attention to technologies it deems critical, such as those crucial for the green and digital transitions. The list of critical technologies noted in the European Commission’s Economic Security Strategy could be a starting point.
Yet technical standards are not equally important or influential across all technologies. The EU should therefore also devise an analytical framework to determine the importance of various standards in its prioritisation process. This should take account of three key dimensions that determine the geopolitical power of technology standards: economic impact, security impact, and normative impact.
Having defined key technologies and standardisation processes, such a platform must then aim to combine information retrieved from (European) stakeholders participating in these standardisation activities with expert analyses of larger policy dynamics. Data analytics tools should complement this work. While not all SDOs fulfil their self-proclaimed criteria on transparent processes, many do, and some data are hence available. Such analytics tools can collect this data and thereby track the emergence of new standardisation activities or working groups, changes in the leadership of SDOs and working groups, and important standardisation contributions.
By leveraging the insights gained from the continuous engagement of key stakeholders and data gathered, the EU will be better positioned to implement concrete measures to ensure international standards development does not fall victim either to political manipulation by China – or to a geopolitical overreaction by the West to China’s rise in technology standardisation.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.