China’s play for global 5G dominance—standards and the ‘Digital Silk Road’
27 Jun 2018|

China is actively seeking to lead in setting technical standards across a range of emerging industries, from ultra-high voltage (UHV) transmission to artificial intelligence. Developing homegrown standards and internationalising them can enable Chinese companies to increase their market share, even dominance, globally.

China’s highly strategic approach to standardisation, including seeking greater ‘discursive power’ (话语权) in relevant international organisations, reflects an understanding of the competitive advantage that influence in this domain can confer. The Standardisation Administration of China plans to issue the ‘China Standards 2035’ (中国标准2035) to promote Chinese technical standards across a range of industries.

In its quest for 5G dominance, Beijing is actively engaged at this intersection of the abstruse and the geopolitical. It views the nascent and emerging technical standards in new technologies as a ‘golden opportunity’ that Chinese national champions are poised to take advantage of, including through their promotion of a new ‘Digital Silk Road’ (数字丝绸之路).

China is positioning itself at the forefront of 5G, recognising that  fifth-generation mobile communications will be a vital ‘information expressway’ (信息高速公路) that can enhance national competitiveness. 5G promises much higher speeds, greater capacity and lower latency. Such next-generation connectivity will enable the deployment of internet of things (IoT) and AI technologies, including self-driving cars and smart cities.

5G is seen as critical to the growth of China’s vibrant digital economy, not to mention its national ambitions in AI. Beijing’s AI plans include a focus on 5G and the improved low-latency, high-throughput transmission capabilities that these technologies will deliver. Anticipating its economic benefits, China has taken a proactive approach to testing and commercialising 5G, and is on track to start rolling the technology out in 2019. China’s 5G industry is expected to be worth ¥1.15 trillion (US$180.5 billion) by 2026.

China wants to actively shape new standards for 5G, thus ensuring its centrality in designing this new ecosystem. In 2012, the International Telecommunications Union started a program to define the future landscape for international mobile telecommunication (IMT) systems, aiming for 2020 and beyond. China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), National Development and Reform Commission and Ministry of Science and Technology then jointly established China’s IMT-2020 (5G) promotion group in February 2013.

Its members include the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, which is directly under MIIT, and major players like ZTE, Huawei and Datang. The group’s intent is to ‘organise and coordinate Chinese participants’ in the process of standard-setting, while supporting the implementation of a major national project on 5G.

At this point, 5G is still taking shape, based on a complex and rather obscure process of standards-setting, convened by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a collaboration among groups of national telecommunications standards associations. The China Communications Standards Association (中国通信标准化协会), established by MIIT, is a partner to 3GPP, and acts in accordance with ‘guidance and supervision’ from MIIT. At 3GPP, representatives from Chinese companies and institutions reportedly have 10 of 57 chair and vice-chair positions, including representation on key decision-making institutions. For instance, Wang Zhiqin, deputy head of the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, a think-tank under the aegis of MIIT, serves as the vice-chair of a technical specification working group.

In 5G, China’s commercial and geopolitical objectives are closely aligned. China’s One Belt, One Road (一带一路) strategy reflects the grand scope and scale of Beijing’s ambitions to leverage Eurasian integration and engagement to advance national interests on a global stage, reshaping the current regional order in the process. Beyond its signature infrastructure projects, the concept of the Digital Silk Road has emerged as a key aspect of this strategy, particularly as China makes its major play to become the world leader in 5G and to shape the 5G standardisation process. As ‘national champions’ such as Huawei emerge as central players in 5G standardisation and commercialisation, their ‘going out’ (走出去) to pursue ventures and partnerships worldwide will advance this agenda.

 Huawei has become a self-described ‘key architect and contributor’ to 5G standards, standing out for its level of participation on these issues. However, its engagement in 3GPP has been criticised at times for ‘flood[ing] the process’. In particular, Huawei has trialled and backed a Polar Code standard (a particular approach to encoding data) for 5G control channels.

Although the standards process is intended to be collaborative and technocratic, its outcome is starting to be perceived in China as a matter of national significance. Strikingly, when Chinese tech company Lenovo voted for a standard developed by the American company Qualcomm, rather than a Huawei alternative, the incident provoked an outcry online, with Chinese netizens condemning the company as a ‘traitor’. In response, Lenovo’s founder released a public statement on the topic to defend the company’s brand and ‘honor,’ in which he highlighted Lenovo’s support of Polar Code in the second round of voting.

The leadership of Chinese companies in deploying 5G technologies worldwide will support and enable the creation of the Digital Silk Road, which will also be leveraged to promote preferred indigenous standards. In the process, Huawei is partnering closely with Europe, including on issues of standardisation.

Notably, the Standardisation Administration of China (国国家标准化管理委员会) has released the ‘Standards China Unicom Joint Construction “One Belt, One Road” Action Plan’ (标准联通共建“一带一路”行动计划) (2018–2020), which calls for promoting the implementation of national standards for 5G and smart cities in One Belt, One Road countries, while supporting the expansion of the infrastructure of China Unicom, a state-owned telecommunications operator that has emerged as a major player in 5G, including partnering with Huawei. As a ‘5G pioneer’, ZTE has also committed to supporting the development of the Digital Silk Road, including by leveraging its 5G trials and partnerships in Europe and the Asia–Pacific.

China’s promotion of the Digital Silk Road—and particularly the deployment of 5G infrastructure—is often greeted with enthusiasm. But it’s also provoking intense controversy. The construction of this new critical infrastructure by a Chinese national champion that could be required by law (or coopted beyond the law) to support and participate in Chinese intelligence raises concerns about the implications for China’s future espionage capabilities, while also creating leverage that could be exercised for coercive purposes.

While there are reasons to welcome the potential benefits of China’s leadership in 5G, this global agenda also raises real questions of risk. Could Chinese 5G infrastructure prove to be a gift horse, or a Trojan horse?