This article originally appeared as a Letter to the Editor in the Financial Times on July 29, 2019. You can find it here.
While your Big Read article “Eyes on the prize” (July 25) correctly outlines China’s aim to have its standards — technical specifications for the production of a good or technology — adopted as international standards, the notion that there is a “first-mover” advantage in standards setting is misguided.
The current approach to international standards does not provide an advantage to any company or country simply because it proposes new standards first. Instead, standards are developed in an open and consensus-based way, ensuring that the most suitable, widely supported proposals are adopted while proposals lacking these characteristics are weeded out. Proposed standards are ultimately adopted globally only if they are the best suited for current technology and consumer needs. The first proposal does not necessarily win; rather, consistent participation and quality submissions by professional engineers guide the market over time.
Though Chinese participation in international standards has increased in recent years, this participation does not amount to undue influence, especially because the consensus approach doesn’t allow for undue influence, which your article notes. In fact, US and multinational companies are still largely regarded as the most influential participants in standards bodies — based on their leadership in the tech market, deep understanding of standards processes and rules, and consistent participation over time.
It is preferable to have Chinese companies contributing in international bodies as opposed to staying home and creating “China-unique” standards that often exclude foreign participation, create market access barriers, and frequently reflect government mandates and preferences.
The bottom line is that if companies aren’t participating, the field is wide open for their competitors to fill the void and drive the work. The US technology sector has long supported an industry-led, voluntary, consensus-based model of standards development because it works — and in the world of standards, the first move is not the last.