June 30, 2021 | International Organizations Monograph

International Telecommunication Union

June 30, 2021 | International Organizations Monograph

International Telecommunication Union


The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is responsible for all international matters related to communications and technology. As technology advances, the organization will play a vital role in guaranteeing interoperability in international communications networks.

In 1949, following the adoption of the International Telecommunication Convention, the ITU became a UN specialized agency. The ITU is divided into three sectors: Radiocommunication (ITU-R), Telecommunication Development (ITU-D), and Telecommunication Standardization (ITU-T). ITU-R manages global radio spectrum and satellite orbit resources. ITU-D supports developing countries with telecommunications construction, and ITU-T coordinates standards for telecommunications and information and communications technology. The ITU’s decisions are binding for member states. However, ITU-R’s standards are issued as recommendations. While most member states comply, they are not obligated to do so.

The Plenipotentiary Conference, the ITU’s supreme decision-making organ, incorporating all 193 member states, convenes every four years. In the interval between meetings, the ITU Council, composed of 48 members, serves as the organization’s governing body. The ITU’s General Secretariat, led by the organization’s secretary-general, manages the union and its sectors’ day-to-day work, administration, and budgetary planning.


Beijing recognizes the ITU’s influence over the global system. The Chinese Communist Party orients its national strategy around asymmetrically influencing international standards. Beijing’s National Standardization Work for 2020 report calls for China’s “in-depth participation in the governance of international standards organizations.”1 Beijing has determined that the ITU, along with the International Standardization Organization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), is one of the three most important international standards-setting organizations.

By contrast, the United States and its allies and partners approach the ITU in a trustful, fragmented, and ad hoc way. If China is able to cement a leadership position within the ITU, Chinese commercial players, technical standards, and geopolitical ambitions are poised to benefit disproportionately at the expense of free-market ideals, privacy, and security. The American-led world order would pay the price.

In 2018, China launched a two-year research project called “China Standards 2035,” designed to establish an informational foundation for Beijing’s National Standardization Strategy Outline. The project is currently under development. At the project’s launch, Dai Hong of China’s National Standardization Management Committee declared that “global technical standards are still in the process of being formed. This gives China’s industry and standards the opportunity to surpass the world.”2 A 2015 article in the Zhejiang Daily by the then-deputy director of the Zhejiang Provincial Party Committee’s Policy Research Office explains that “under the conditions of economic globalization and modern market economy … standards are the commanding heights, discourse power, and the power to control. Therefore, the one who obtains the standards gains the world.”3 That is why Chinese leadership of the ITU should raise concerns.

Houlin Zhao, a graduate of China’s Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications, is in the middle of his second four-year term as the ITU’s secretary-general. Chinese media and academic discussions have trumpeted his post’s significance for China’s global influence.4 Zhao’s milestone accomplishment at the ITU was the development of coordination mechanisms for the ITU to work with the ISO and the IEC. He has been a loud defender of Huawei: In response to U.S. and global pressure in 2019, he declared that the ITU had “not come across any evidence pointing at security concerns of [Huawei’s] equipment.”5 Zhao has also overseen Huawei-sponsored ITU events.6

Chinese control of the ITU is a threat to U.S. interests. Beijing’s “state-led, enterprise-driven” model leverages China’s centralization and scale to exploit the open global rule-making system. The United States has twice as many registered ITU sector members as China, enabling them to contribute to working groups and policy discussions, thereby influencing outcomes.7 However, the American entities do not all follow a single directive or government tasking. Rather, they compete and negotiate amongst themselves and others.

Chinese players also possess global market positions – and leverage – that grant them influence beyond their direct member count.8 For example, Huawei subsidiaries in Germany (Huawei Technologies Düsseldorf GmbH), Switzerland (Huawei Technologies Switzerland AG), and Sweden (Huawei Technologies Sweden AB) are all registered as ITU sector members. The U.S. Department of Commerce has designated Huawei as a risk to U.S. national security and foreign policy interests.9 But the company – and its affiliates – freely engage in standards-setting at the ITU.10


The United States would benefit from efforts that coordinate the influence of the United States and its principal allies and partners. Specifically, the U.S. government should:

  • Develop an election strategy to ensure that individuals elected to ITU leadership posts – ITU secretary-general, deputy secretary-general, the three key director posts, and additional working-group leadership roles – do not serve Beijing’s interests. The moment for this is now. ITU elected officials may serve a maximum of two four-year terms in any elected post, meaning Zhao will not be eligible for re-election in 2023. U.S. support for the candidacy of Doreen Bogdan-Martin stands as a timely example of a deliberate election approach that could be coordinated and replicated by the State Department moving forward.
  • Work with relevant U.S. industries to share information and coordinate in advance of ITU deliberations and working-group functions. Coordination among U.S. private-sector contributors can help protect against Chinese pressure and influence campaigns that may trade preferential policy treatment in the Chinese market for cooperation in policymaking debates at the ITU and related international organizations.
  • Encourage additional private-sector organizations to apply for sector member status at the ITU and bodies that feed into the ITU’s standard-setting process, such as the Third Generation Partnership Project. Sector members and contributors at linked industry associations provide a critical, undervalued voice in the complex bargaining processes of technical standard setting. China enjoys an asymmetry in terms of the centralization and non-market support provided to its private sector, whose representation in ITU sector membership is growing. 
  • Work with allies and partners – and their private sectors – to share information about the long-term risks of adopting Chinese-backed standards. For example, the emerging standards that define 5G telecommunications not only bear security implications, but also promise significant economic returns to those who shape them: U.S. leadership in 4G generated some $125 billion in revenue for American companies.11


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