Much of the 5G discussion has focused on Trump administration sanctions against Chinese telecom giant Huawei. But the growing U.S.-China tech war extends to a broader issue: global dominance over technological standards. Republicans warn about America’s “woeful absence” in the setting of technical standards for 5G networks, along with calls for Washington to work with “allies to stanch the spread” of Huawei’s influence.

Meanwhile, President-elect Joe Biden may be more likely to welcome the recent proposal of a “tech alliance” among democratic countries to counter China’s “use of technology standards and its tech sector as instruments of state power abroad.”

Who will claim global leadership on 5G — as well as artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies? The competition is fierce. China’s focus on moving from standard-taker to standard-maker is a major source of unease for political and economic elites in much of the global north. Our research shows that, amid rising geopolitical tensions, Germany and China are swimming against the tide by cooperating closely on high-tech standardization. Here’s what you need to know.

China seeks greater influence in setting technical standards

Western nations and companies have long dominated global standard-setting. In 2003, a failed effort by the Chinese government to replace the international WiFi standard with a homegrown encryption standard for wireless devices revealed the difficulty in challenging these standards.

China responded by increasing its presence in global standard-setting bodies. From 2015 to 2018, for instance, Zhang Xiaogang served as the first Chinese president of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). In January, Shu Yinbiao started his three-year term as president of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). Occupying these leadership positions has strengthened China’s ability to shape new standards for cutting-edge technologies.

China’s standards ambitions are also increasingly prominent in Beijing’s geostrategic initiatives. Set for release by the end of 2020, the China Standards 2035 plan is expected to establish a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Standards Forum to promote Chinese standards among BRI countries. Nations that seek Chinese infrastructure investments will come under pressure to adopt Chinese standards — in Turkmenistan, for example, investment was tied to adoption of Chinese industrial standards.

China has found a key partner in Germany

Although many Western countries strive to contain and counter China’s growing technological prowess, Germany and China are cooperating closely on high-tech standardization. This collaboration is embedded in a larger multi-actor partnership linking the two countries in the domain of Industrie 4.0 — Germany’s catchphrase for “the intelligent networking of machines and processes with the help of information and communication technology.”

Bilateral cooperation on technical standardization in smart manufacturing dates to 2015. It falls under the political oversight of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi), as well as China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) and the Standardization Administration of China (SAC).

This effort — which involves technical and strategic elements — brings together standardization experts from both countries. It began with a commitment to submit mutually supported standardization proposals to global standardization bodies. The two countries have submitted eight such proposals on various Industrie 4.0 technologies. In 2019, a new Strategy Dialogue Group added another layer to the partnership to discuss ways to generate support, and counter opposition, from other ISO members in standardization processes.

Our research illuminates the factors behind this partnership — and the benefits both parties see in cooperating. By partnering with Germany, one of the world’s leading standards powers, China hopes to cultivate a powerful ally in an increasingly contentious arena, as well as master the subtleties of standardization practice by working with an insider.

Germany’s outsize influence in standardization is evident in its dominance of leadership positions in technical committees, subcommittees and working groups within the ISO and the IEC. Chinese participants hope that their partnership with Germany will offset pressure against China in global standardization bodies.

Chinese officials we interviewed also emphasized the value of learning about how to push standards more effectively at the global level. As a latecomer, China’s standardization proposals have sometimes struggled to get off the ground, partly because of difficulties in presenting arguments fluently and in line with established practices. Working jointly on standardization projects with German standard-setters is an opportunity to learn the tricks of the trade.

Germany also sees benefits to working with China

German standard-setters see supporting China’s entry into global standardization as ultimately a matter of self-interest. They worry that if China were to go it alone through a BRI Standards Forum, they themselves would lose capacity to steer global standardization processes. Germany’s “hidden champions” — midsize, low-profile yet world-leading firms in industries such as mechanical engineering — back the bilateral cooperation because being excluded from standardization relevant to the Chinese market would be costly to German companies.

Some German government officials consider China’s keen interest in cooperation on smart manufacturing a valuable bargaining chip that ultimately will benefit German industry in China. Germany has already deployed the Industrie 4.0 partnership strategically to resolve a dispute with China over new energy vehicles. In 2017, while communication on high-tech standard-setting continued, the German government temporarily withdrew from most aspects of the Industrie 4.0 cooperation until Beijing agreed to a resolution that appeased German automakers.

Despite strong political backing by the federal government in Berlin, the partnership has sparked controversy in Germany. Berlin think tank MERICS, along with the country’s leading industry association, the Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie (BDI), has warned that Germany is in a “system competition” with China. They view Germany’s liberal market order as under threat from the “China model” of state-led, authoritarian economic governance — and caution against working closely with the Chinese government and firms in strategic sectors.

What’s next?

If the global tech wars continue to heat up, Germany probably will face increasing pressure, both at home and abroad, to blunt China’s growing influence in technical standardization. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has prioritized close ties between Berlin and Beijing, but her retirement in 2021 could prompt new questioning of this partnership. For the time being, however, the Sino-German alliance in high-tech standardization remains a little-known but important example of mutually beneficial cooperation.

Daniel Fuchs is a postdoctoral research and teaching fellow at the Institute for Asian and African Studies at Humboldt University of Berlin.

Sarah Eaton is professor of transregional China studies at Humboldt University of Berlin.