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Who will set standards for 21st century technologies — the US or China?

Who will set standards for 21st century technologies — the US or China?
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The Endless Frontiers Act advances many proposals to significantly strengthen America’s capabilities in a wide range of advanced technologies. But in addition to promoting or enhancing U.S. leadership in these industries, the act has another objective: reinforcing America’s position as a central force in setting international standards for these rapidly advancing technologies. These standards could include, inter alia, ground rules for ethical, safety and normative codes and conventions, and mutually agreed practices in trade and investment, in various technologies where they are needed. 

The standards that are set will, in some cases, have a major impact in determining which nation’s products will enjoy growing opportunities in international markets. In others, they will regulate how well various countries’ products and services work or interact with those of other countries. In a number they will determine whether certain American products or services have an advantage or disadvantage in the global markets. And they have the potential to set broadly accepted international ethical and normative codes and conventions for growing industries, rather than letting these standards evolve in a nationalistic and fragmented way.  

Such standards can affect the ways in which new technologies affect our societies, our security, our economies and our lives for decades to come. They can determine whether these technologies are used in constructive or destructive ways by countries and non-state actors.

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Many of the global standards currently in place were set over the years by international “standards-setting” bodies. Many currently existing fora likely will seek to take on the task of determining standards for future technologies, although for certain rapidly emerging and dramatically new technologies no agreed standard-setting institutions yet exist. Where there are groups constituted or charged to take on these tasks, countries that are most effective at negotiating within them or developing coalitions of other members that support their objectives will have an outsized impact on the final rules or norms. 

The Chinese understand this very well. They have proven to be effective negotiators in such meetings over the years, and are adept at mobilizing support from many parts of the world; the Belt and Road Initiative and China’s close political and commercial ties in large numbers of countries in the developing world have helped support its objectives. Beijing also has put together a long-term standardization reform plan and a five-year plan for standardization. As the draft Endless Frontier Act points out, China wants to establish itself as a “standards power” and dramatically strengthen its participation in international standards-setting organizations. The U.S. needs to have bold, long-term objectives as well — and a portion of this act is aimed at that. We need also to be a “standards power” in order to serve our global economic and trade interests and ensure that new technologies are ethically and safely utilized.

The legislation emphasizes how critical it is for the U.S. and its allies to participate vigorously in the development of standards that underpin fair international competition and constructive use of advanced technologies. U.S. leadership in standards development is particularly crucial for emerging technologies where there currently are no, or few, agreed international rules and little consensus on what constitutes ethical or safe practices or norms. A strong U.S. role in standards-setting will improve prospects for American competitiveness, the constructive use of certain advanced technologies that could be mobilized for a multitude of purposes, and national security. 

Among other parts of the Endless Frontier Act, this deserves to be considered an important national priority in the final legislation and in the future architecture of America’s efforts to achieve and sustain the role of global technology leader.

Robert Hormats is managing director of Tiedemann Advisors, a New York-headquartered financial firm. He was undersecretary of State for economic growth, energy and the environment, 2009-13; a senior official of Goldman Sachs from 1982-2009; assistant secretary of State, 1981-82, and a former ambassador and deputy U.S. trade representative, 1979-81. As senior economics adviser to three White House national security advisers from 1969 to 1977, he helped to oversee the U.S. opening to China. Follow him on Twitter @BobHormats.