In a report released on Thursday, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China expressed worries about China’s ‘state-centric approach’ to technical standards, which is considered augmenting the risks of politicization and decoupling from established international measures, SCMP reported.

The West has long been the global leader in technical standards, setting the specifications that form most everyday goods and services, from toilet paper to telecommunication protocols. However, despite being a latecomer, China has recently surged as a big influencer in the international standardization system with an advanced position in many strategic and new technology sectors like 5G mobile tech and artificial intelligence.

“Europe needs to wake up to this fact,” says EU Chamber President Joerg Wuttke in the report.

Although Chinese authorities publicly announced their aim to “contribute ‘Chinese wisdom’ towards optimising global standards governance,” the EU report blames China for gaining the upper hand in these above-mentioned sectors through systematic state support. 

As stated by the report, “Technical standards are by nature non-binding, private and self-regulatory, providing interoperability” to minimize friction and enhance trade. However, there is growing concern that Beijing wants to promote its own standards instead of playing a constructive role within the existing system.

“China is exporting its state-centric standardisation approach internationally … [as such] there is a risk of bifurcation, fragmentation or a decoupling from international standards, not least in the context of standardisation activities as part of the Belt and Road Initiative,” the report explains.

The report is published when the US-China conflict over a range of trade, tech, and political issues is intensified, despite recent efforts by both sides to mitigate tensions.

In a national strategy for technical standards released in October, Beijing schedules how it can become a global standardization powerhouse, promising to give a greater role to industry actors and further open domestic standards-setting to foreign companies, which have received skepticism from Western think tanks.

“This growing role for industry players must be placed in the context of a Chinese party-state that is asserting greater control over Chinese companies, particularly technology companies,” research fellows at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in October.

“This greater role for industry actors should be seen not as a shift away from the state, but rather as a way of bolstering the capabilities of the state-centred standards system,” they explained.

The EU Chamber report also expresses a close examination over China’s target to align 85% of its domestic standards with international ones.

“You can always go to tweak it, and you can tweak it quite significantly, and then say it’s based on international standards. But what would really be crucial is if China committed to identical adoption [of global standards],” said Tim Rühlig, a research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and co-publisher of the EU report.

The report also advises Beijing to re-consider its so-called “civil-military fusion,” which may be harmful to China’s international reputation and its future influence in the field of standards-setting.

In the context of China’s rising standards-setting activities, growth potential, and focus on shifting up the value chain, EU Chamber President Joerg Wuttke urged the European business community to invest more in “the battleground of the future.”

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