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October 18, 2021

Standardizing the future

How can the United States navigate the geopolitics of international technology standards?
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Chinese flag on button keyboard.
Chinese flag on button keyboard.
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Standards for data and technology represent a key part of the world’s digital ecosystem, and as such, they can have significant implications for geopolitics. This report, published in partnership with the American Edge Project, endeavors to study the geopolitical dynamics surrounding technology standards setting to better inform related US policy. The People’s Republic of China recently initiated a systematic strategy to expand its involvement in standards setting for new technologies, in what many US policy makers view as an effort to dominate international standards and work against the United States and its allies. Such an effort could harm the integrity of the standards-setting process, resulting in less accessible or even less functional standards, and threaten the United States’ position as a global technology leader. This work examines China’s engagement with standards setting and asks the following questions: How is China’s strategy for standards setting changing over time? Is there reason to worry that China may disproportionately impact the selection and enforcement of technological standards in the future? And what would that mean for US standards policy?

To study these questions, the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center conducted extensive interviews with leading experts in standards setting, US-Sino relations, and technology policy, and collected a dataset studying the demographics of standards organizations’ members.

Our research found that while the Chinese government is seeking to increase its sway over international standards developing organizations (SDOs), there is, at least currently, no cause for concern that China may exert unfair influence over them. Standards bodies have solid organizational integrity, which aims to ensure standards are chosen based on merit, not politics, and they have withstood past efforts by governments to influence their operations. Though US policy makers ought to maintain awareness of China’s activities, they must also take SDOs’ structural integrity and history into account as they design a strategy for future US engagement with standards organizations. To avoid making the same mistakes as China in seeking to gain technology leadership by influencing SDOs, US strategy should focus on increased government investment in US technology to support domestic innovation and the development of high-quality products suited to become the international standard.

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This text was co-authored by Giulia Neaher, David Bray, Julian Mueller-Kaler, and Benjamin Schatz and first published on October 14, 2021, by the Atlantic Council

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