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Congress Seeks To Head Off U.S.-China 'Standards Wars'

Congress has jumped into the fray over whether technology standards are being used to erect trade barriers designed to protect emerging Asian industries.
WASHINGTON — Congress has jumped into the fray over whether technology standards are being used to erect trade barriers designed to protect emerging Asian industries.

Exhibit A during a hearing this week (May 11) was China's attempt last year to establish a wireless standard known as the Wireless Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure. The WAPI security scheme would have required U.S. companies to manufacture two sets of chips, one for the Chinese market and another for the rest of the world.

China ultimately backed down under U.S. pressure, but one lawmaker predicted that "China will continue to attempt to use standards to favor Chinese manufacturers."

Added Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Science technology and standards subcommittee: "U.S. companies and standards setting organizations are concerned that our trading partners are using technical standards as trade barriers to U.S. products to protect their own domestic industries. This practice seems to be increasing as traditional tariff barriers are being lowered."

The U.S. has responded by attempting to take a more active role in international standards groups. It is also trying to encourage U.S. and international standards development through initiatives like a national standards strategy. The Commerce Department issued a standards report in 2004. One recommendation was to coordinate government efforts to promote technology standards.

Hratch Semerjian, acting director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (Gaithersburg, Md.), testified that the Commerce Department agency has received many U.S. industry requests to focus on China as "the primary market where the United States should attempt to influence standards development and trade policy relating to standards."

The U.S. standards strategy towards China includes "continued engagement at the policy and technical levels," Semerjian said, along with government grants to standards groups seeking to open offices in China. The U.S. will also post a "standards attache" to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing this summer. Finally, Semerjian said Washington is sponsoring general and sector-specific workshops for Chinese officials and U.S. industry groups.

China's response so far has not been encouraging. After backing away from imposing its WAPI scheme, it approached the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) with a fast-track submission. Beijing's intent was to make WAPI an international security standard.

In February, Chinese representatives walked out of an ISO meeting after its fast-track submission was withdrawn from consideration. Chinese officials accused ISO of favoring the IEEE's 802.11i ANSI-certified wireless LAN security scheme, which is also on a procedural fast track.