Liuning Zhou

Jonathan Aronson, Chair
François Bar, Shui Yan Tang

Technical Base, Interests, and Power in the Two-Level Game of International Telecom Standards Setting: The Political Economy of China’s Initiatives

Current literature on international telecom standards setting ignores the two-level game nature of the technical process, and also fails to address current telecom standards-setting initiatives in China. This study addressed these two gaps from a theoretical and empirical perspective. In the study, I propose, using Robert Putnam’s two-level game metaphor, a domestic-global linkage model to theorize the development of national telecom standards into international ones, arguing that international telecom standards setting is a two-level game involving standards setters, network operators, and bureaucrats at national and international levels. I also argue that three key factors—technical base, interests, and power—interact with each other in transitioning national standards into international standards.

Two case studies of China’s recent standards initiatives are provided: TD-SCDMA for third-generation mobile communications and WAPI for wireless networking. These case studies present the developmental background of the two Chinese standards under study, analyzing the reasons for their setbacks from a two-level game perspective.

I contend that conflicting interests and unbalanced power among Chinese actors diminished the influence of the local standards setter, and as a result, the competing interests and stronger political-economic power of international competitors subjected China’s initiatives to rules of international trade, causing the Chinese standards to suffer setbacks in the international standards arena.

The TD-SCDMA case reveals that a telecom standard with a comparable technical base may succeed in its global adoption efforts when it has strong domestic interests and power behind it. The WAPI case shows that a telecom standard with a comparable technical base can fail in its global adoption efforts when it has weak domestic interests and power behind it.

Conceptually, I theorize that interests and power interact with a technical base at national and international levels to influence the outcome of international telecom standards-setting initiatives. Thus, national telecom standards must make a domestic-global linkage to become international standards.

For empirical analysis, I provide a systematic, comprehensive study of the political economy of China’s telecom standards-setting efforts within a global framework.