Standards wars are not usually considered to be very newsworthy outside of the technical niche in which they occur, but occasionally there's a breakout story that receives much wider attention. A recent example was the frontal assault of multiple countries directed at wresting control of the root directory of the Internet - a small but very important standard - from the United States. That skirmish completely monopolized press coverage of the Tunis meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) last November.
But before that, there was an even higher level confrontation, this time over a close-range wireless networking standard. That dispute involved the IEEE 802.11 standards family commonly referred to as WiFi, on the one hand, and a Chinese-origin standard called WLAN on the other. More particularly, it involved a security protocol (called WAPI) included in WLAN that China contends provides superior security protection than does WiFi.
The original WiFi-WAPI conflict arose from the announcement by China that only WAPI-enabled equipment could be sold in the Peoples Republic of China beginning in 2004, which would reverse the situation from one requiring Chinese manufacturers from paying high patent royalties to companies like Intel to one where Western vendors would find themselves in the opposite position.
Publicly, Intel and other chip vendors announced that they would refuse to sell microprocessors in China if the requirement was imposed. Privately, they headed to Washington for help, since of course they had no desire to lose access to so vast a market. The dispute worked its way up through diplomatic channels until ultimately then-Secretary of State Colin Powell became involved. Eventually, China postponed the effectiveness of the home-grown standards requirement.
But what had been brokered was only a truce, and not a final resolution to the dispute. Now, that dispute is flaring up again, and it is the Chinese standards delegation this time that is calling in the diplomatic corps to engage with the opposition.
The background is as follows. Instead of China permanently withdrawing its standard in 2004, it prepared to submit its technology to IEEE and ISO for adoption in competition with WiFi. In consequence, ISO could have voted to adopt one of the two standards, the competitor, or both (the sides could also have tried to reconcile the two standards, but did not). For better or worse, earlier this year ISO approved Wi-Fi – but not WAPI, in part, those that voted against approval say, because China refused to disclose much about the security elements of its specification.
China was livid with this result, and has been escalating the rhetoric ever since, accusing IEEE, Intel and others of manipulating the system and engaging in dirty tricks. It has also filed two appeals with ISO. This week, China put the West on notice that it is bringing the diplomats back into the fray, and as of this writing, it appears that things will become worse before they become better, given that there appears to be no public effort in process to defuse the situation.
The underlying trade dynamics are complex, as described in the April 2005 issue of the Consortium Standards Bulletin, and are mediated to an extent by China’s earlier accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), and therefore subjection to the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade. As a result, the current march towards possible open (standards) war has been measured, signaled by multiple articles in Peoples Daily and elsewhere. On January 9, China signaled that it would be promoting WAPI domestically where security was an issue. Almost simultaneously, it also announced that it would license foreign companies to use the WAPI standard as well (during the prior face-off it planned to license only a small number of domestic companies).
As the closing date for the ISO adoption vote neared, China turned up the heat, announcing the formation of a consortium called the WAPI Alliance to promote adoption of the home grown standard. It also began to accuse the IEEE process of bias and skullduggery, as reported at a Dutch IT Website:
F]eelings are running high over WAPI’s treatment in the international standards process. At the launch of the WAPI Industry Union, supporters lashed out at Western opposition to the technology’s adoption, singling out Intel, which dominates the market for WLAN chips through its popular Centrino notebook package.
“Intel’s WLAN standard is garbage,” said Cao Jun, general manager of IWNCOMM Co. Ltd., the company that developed the technology behind WAPI, quoted in a Chinese newspaper report. In another report, Cao accused Intel of engaging in backroom maneuvers to prevent a vote on WAPI’s inclusion as part of an international WLAN standard.
If the hope was to turn the tide in IEEE and ISO, it didn’t work. In the coming days, word leaked that WAPI approval had failed by a significant margin. China vowed not to take no for an answer, and appealed the decision, charging foul play, as reported at CIO.com and elsewhere:
The semiofficial China Broadband Wireless IP Standards Working Group (BWIPS) singled out the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), accusing the group of acting improperly during the international standardization process. “IEEE has committed unethical and unjust activities trying to destroy WAPI by every means,” it said.
The Chinese delegation also asked for consultation with ISO to agree upon “further processing plans.”
On May 29, it was learned that China had filed a second appeal with ISO, calling the announced vote results “unacceptable,” and going on to peremptorily pronounce that:
“Until results are reached on these important issues, no further processing of the two proposals are allowed,” said the appeal, which also asked the ISO to take corrective measures if the ethical and procedural violations are proven.
The same article quotes BWIPS as saying that ISO has agreed to hear the appeal. For its part, the IEEE is claiming that no irregularities occurred:
“It is inaccurate to characterize the [IEEE 802.11i Working Group’s] activities as untruthful or uncooperative,” the IEEE says in a statement, saying claims made by the Standardization Administration of China weren’t supported by facts. The IEEE says its Working Group conducted all its activities in public forums, to which the Chinese standards body was invited.
Most recently, a large Chinese delegation attended a “resolution analysis” meeting in Prague (i.e., a meeting to reconcile the comments received from ISO members together with their votes, and to make final changes to the text of the adopted standard basesd on those comments). Prior to the beginning of the meeting, a member of the delegation stated “If we all strictly follow ISO rules, the rejection of WAPI should be withdrawn and the 11i technology should be returned for reprocessing.”
Again, the Chinese were disappointed, and the delegation walked out before the meeting was complete. As reported in the Peoples Daily Online, the Xinhua News Agency is sayng that the Chinese are now preparing to take the dispute to the next level:
A Chinese delegation representing a China-made version of a networking technology has called for diplomatic support after quitting an ongoing international meeting in Prague due to “unfair treatment.”
“It has become necessary for the Chinese government to give diplomatic support to the home-grown WAPI technology,” the delegation said on Thursday through an e-mail to Xinhua.
The U.S. government has played an important role in supporting its own technology competing against WAPI, said the e-mailed statement….
According to the same story, the Chinese delegation claimed a continuing record of unfairness:
All kinds of views should have been presented at the meeting but actually it did not allow the Chinese delegation to speak about IEEE’s violations of ISO procedures and rules, said the statement….
“China lost its right to elaborate on its opinion at the meeting and WAPI has been deprived of an opportunity to change its fate following the vote,” the statement said.
“In this extremely unfair atmosphere, it is meaningless for the Chinese delegation to continue attending the meeting,” it said….
In appeals made to the ISO in late April, China asked the organization to delay analysis of the voting result and IEEE to apologize for its “amoral behavior.”
The appeal is still pending but the analysis meeting was held despite the request for a delay.
Notwithstanding its failure to block the effectiveness of the adoption of WiFi, it seems that the Chinese are determined to continue to fight the ISO decision, and to turn up the heat as well. At the same time, it should be noted that the WiFi/WAPI is not occurring in an economic vacuum. Simultaneously there are multiple other standards competitions ongoing in China that could also break into more open conflicts. These include a DVD standard, an RFID standard, and most significantly, a 3G telephone standard. China represents the largest market for mobile cell phones in the world, and thus if it chooses to license only its own home-grown TDSCMA standard over the two Western rivals the economic consequences could be extreme.
As a result, it will be instructive to watch how each of these chess games proceeds to play out. This is especially so, since there will doubtless be more, and not fewer, instances where technology standards, global trade and international relations all converge in a single high-stakes face-off that can either be settled amicably, or break into an international standards-based trade war, further complicating already delicate trade negotiations between major trading partners.
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