China leads the way on for 5G Global Standards

China has become a leading writer of international rules for emerging technologies, particularly fifth-generation wireless, as part of a national effort to shape the playing field in its favour. The country is reportedly drafting a medium-term strategy nicknamed “China Standards 2035”, complementing the “Made in China 2025” industrial modernisation plan under which it has cultivated such fields as 5G and artificial intelligence. But as distrust toward Beijing mounts, its growing dominance of the standards discussion risks becoming another source of friction.

China submitted 830 technical documents related to wired communications specifications to the International Telecommunication Union last year, the most of any country and more than the next three — South Korea, the US and Japan — combined, according to an industry group. Such documents serve as a basis for deliberation on new standards, and more papers mean more of a voice. China is the fifth-largest contributor to the ITU’s budget as well. The organisation’s Chinese leader, secretary-general Zhao Houlin, was previously involved in developing telecom standards for the Chinese government and has pledged to step up co-operation with Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Aside from telecommunications, China was behind 16 of the 65 proposals for new technical committees at the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission since 2014, the Japanese Industrial Standards Committee found.

These committees draft specifications for specific fields, with the leader typically hailing from the country that made the proposal. China now also leads the IEC as a whole, as Shu Yinbiao became president in January. The US, alarmed by the prospect of Beijing writing the rules, has moved to decouple Chinese tech companies from American business. Washington last year in effect ordered US companies to stop doing business with Huawei Technologies on security grounds. While the UK and France have begun taking a tougher line on Huawei, such moves cannot entirely eliminate China’s influence in 5G.

Huawei is the top filer of standard-essential patents for 5G, according to the Tokyo-based Cyber Creative Institute. It leads in 5G-related contributions to 3GPP, an international organisation that develops telecom standards, beating out European rivals and US-based Qualcomm. The Chinese company — also a trailblazer in 4G — sued Verizon Communications in February, accusing the American wireless carrier of infringing on its patents. “Even if Huawei is blocked from 5G networks, there will be times when companies have to pay it royalties for using patents that have become part of industry standards,” said an attorney well-versed in intellectual property issues.

China could use its sway in standards to undermine economic sanctions. The US Treasury Department took the unusual step in June of allowing companies to exchange technical information with the blacklisted Huawei in the context of developing 5G specifications, out of concern that America could be left out of the process. If China successfully seizes the initiative in standards development, Chinese companies would gain an edge in developing chips and software for 5G-compatible phones, potentially strengthening the country’s competitiveness in areas more significant than just assembling equipment.

That would throw up another hurdle to the US strategy of containing China’s tech influence. The trend has also worried some in Tokyo. “First, China will make its own domestic standards into international standards, then it will export complete Chinese systems that meet” those specifications, said Akira Amari, head of the tax panel of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a major voice in industrial policymaking. Japan is paying particularly close attention to the proposed standards for smart cities that China has submitted to the ISO. Smart cities touch on a broad range of industries including housing and autos, and new rules may affect Japanese businesses. There are also concerns about China gaining access to personal data collected through technologies such as facial recognition