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Russia’s recent ITU election loss is a major setback for China’s internet governance ambitions

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Written by Olena Borodyna

Image credit:Doreen Bogdan-Martin Image license:CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO

On 29 September, Doreen Bogdan-Martin from the US won a substantial mandate to lead the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) as its next Secretary-General.

The ITU develops technical standards which facilitate network and technology interconnection and works to improve digital access globally. Once an obscure UN organisation, it’s now at the forefront of a geopolitical contest for the future of global technology standards and internet governance. With 139 votes, Bogdan-Martin claimed a 100-point lead over Russia’s Rashid Ismailov, who received just 25 votes.

She will replace outgoing Houlin Zhao, a Chinese citizen who in his second term found himself at loggerheads with the US over its restriction on Huawei technologies. Ismailov’s election loss comes ahead of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) 20th National Congress on 16 October, where Xi Jinping is widely expected to be re-elected for a third term as the General Secretary of the CCP. Going into his third term, Xi may find that China’s ambitions to shape the future of internet governance through new protocols and global technical standards are increasingly challenged and instead of leading in these areas, the country may find itself on the back foot.

Over the last few years, promoting the digital economy through the Digital Silk Road and its vision for internet governance globally has come to the fore of China’s international bilateral and regional engagements, through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation among others. In 2014, China launched the World Internet Conference to discuss pressing global cyber governance issues, attracting participation from the CEOs of Apple and Google. Meanwhile, its significant representation at ITU meant that Chinese companies like Huawei increased their influence in setting global standards for 5G and other technologies as their own global presence expanded.

Domestically, emerging industries which power the digital economy such as e-commerce, AI and 5G are critical to fulfilling China’s vision of innovation-driven growth. The country’s national security framework was updated to reflect their continued expansion and critical role in securing future economic growth. Under the 2015 National Security Law, China vows to uphold sovereignty, security and development interests in the cyberspace so having a say in global governance norms and standards is critical to the country’s own data security.

The two candidates who competed for the Secretary-General position in the recent election represented contrasting visions for the future role of the ITU. Ismailov was perceived to stand for Russia and China’s ambition of expanding the ITU mandate to play a bigger role in internet governance. In February 2022, shortly before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it published a joint statement with China where the two countries agreed to ‘support the internationalisation of internet governance, advocate equal rights to its governance’, and that they ‘believe that any attempts to limit their sovereign right to regulate national segments of the internet and ensure their security are unacceptable, are interested in greater participation of the International Telecommunication Union in addressing these issues.’ Ismailov’s election as the ITU Secretary-General was critical to achieving this joint vision.

China has likely endorsed and potentially privately lobbied on behalf of Ismailov and his election loss is a major setback for China’s ambition to shape the future of global internet governance. Yet as China has expanded its global footprint in the digital economy and articulated its vision for the future of internet governance, its ambitions have been met with growing suspicion and scrutiny with the US leading the charge. As a result, in contrast to the previous elections when Houlin Zhao ran uncontested, the US lobbied extensively for its candidate whose endorsement by President Joe Biden and the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken highlighted the critical role of the organisation in the polarised geopolitical environment.

Russia’s ITU election loss is indicative of this changing environment – one where China will also find it more difficult to set global technology standards and shape the future of internet governance. From restricting Huawei’s role in its own network to establishing the Clean Network, under the Trump Administration the US reasserted its interests in these areas and the Biden administration appears be following suit. The new Presidential administration in 2024 – whether Democratic or Republican, is unlikely to change direction.

The fact the US is now focused on setting technology standards and China’s ambition for reshaping internet governance is bad news for China. Having expended significant amounts of diplomatic resources to steer countries towards its vision of future internet governance, in his third term China’s Xi may find it more difficult do so. Instead of setting the agenda, China may instead find itself on the back foot – as it did when proposing the Data Security Initiative in response to the US Clean Network initiative.

Similarly, while Chinese companies will retain their participation at the ITU and other relevant standard-setting bodies, it is likely that the US will seek to disrupt their role in standards for new technologies. Furthermore, while until now the US and other wealthier countries have sounded the alarm about security risks of Chinese technologies and its growing role in setting standards, more countries may yet join them if the US is able to back its narratives with concrete opportunities to improve digital access for the billions of people yet to be connected to the grid. With the US paying close attention to its activities, going into his third term Xi may find that China has to work harder if it wants to maintain a significant role in setting technology standards and shape the future of global internet governance.