Technical Standardisation

Technical standardisation, China and the future international order

A European perspective
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For decades and almost unnoticed by the general public and politicians, technical standards have been a driving engine behind globalisation. In recent years, they run the risk of turning into a core subject of great power competition over high technology. China’s growing footprint in international technical standardisation is not the only development fuelling this phenomenon, but it is one of the most crucial. While technical standardisation was mainly a matter of private self-regulation with only a marginal role for states, China takes an essentially state-driven approach with the potential to fundamentally reshape the future order of technical standardisation. In addition, China has incorporated a standardisation dimension into its Belt and Road Initiative. This could contribute to a trend that weakens the existing international technical standardisation institutions.

In this context, Europe is facing at least four challenges: firstly, Europe increasingly finds itself squeezed in between the growing US-China technological power rivalry. This includes the EU’s traditional stronghold of technical standardisation. While Europe has profited from technical standards facilitating the globalisation of trade and production, it may suffer if standards turn into a matter of power rivalry. The EU needs to make sure it does not fall victim to this tendency.

Secondly, Europe emphasises its commitment to rules-based institutions in world affairs. Hence, it cannot simply adopt the new power approach to technical standards, since this undermines the existing institutional framework of international technical standardisation.

Thirdly, the empowerment of a state-directed approach undermines Europe’s basic aspiration to encourage the democratic ideal of societal self-governance. Instead, it contributes to a re-strengthening of state sovereignty and state control.

Fourthly, Europe’s “Standard Power” is declining. From a perspective that purely aims to preserve European influence, the EU needs to consider what it can do to meet this development and remain a bastion of international technical standardisation.

All these developments are clearly not only the result of China’s policies. Rising contestation over high technology politicises technical standardisation, which makes us aware of how politically relevant technical standardisation has always been. Hence, the changing role and perception of technical standardisation is not entirely negative. Most encouragingly, China is still undergoing a major standardisation reform. This might provide a window of opportunity for Europe to influence the future of China’s approach to technical standardisation and preserve the existing international technical standardisation order. Accordingly, this paper ends with concrete policy recommendations for the European Union.

Product details
Date of Publication
March 2020
Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union
Number of Pages
Language of publication
Table of contents

Table of contents
Policital Comment
Executive Summary

1. Introduction 6
1.1. From globalisation to geo-economics: the role of technical standards
1.2. Technical standardisation and the rise of China
1.3. Purpose and structure of this paper

2. Ordering the world by means of technical standards 8
2.1. Omnipresent and transformative: technical standards
2.2. The shifting order of international technical standardisation

3. Globalisation through public private partnership:
the European approach to technical standardisation 
3.1. The European approach to technical standardisation
3.2. The US and EU systems of technical standardisation in comparison

4. What’s in for the party-state? China’s approach to technical standardisation in the making 13
4.1. China’s essentially state-driven approach to technical standardisation and the on-going reform
4.2. The contested state-driven approach: “China Standards 2035”, bureaucratic rivalry and the prospects
for further reform
4.3. Towards a convergence of European and Chinese standardisation?

5. Going out: China’s standards for the world? 20
5.1. China’s growing footprint in international standardisation organisations
5.2. Internationalising China’s domestic standards outside the existing institutions:
the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)
5.3. Reshaping the international order of technical standardisation?

6. Conclusion 27
6.1. Brief summary
6.2. Relevance of the development and consequences for the European Union

7. Policy recommendations for the European Union 29
List of abbreviations 32
Cited literature 33