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Chinese food for thought

As engineers, we forget that politics exerts a far more important influence over our species than the laws of physics do. Competition between nations often makes corporate positioning or those entertaining battles over standards pale by comparison.

So, it's not surprising when politics rears its ugly head in our domain; indeed this will be the norm in the future. Remember Cisco's CCX “standards plus” move, to cite an example of a politically motivated technological development? Now apply that nationally, and you have an idea of the strategy behind China's announcement of its proprietary WAPI wireless-LAN security standard.

What's actually in WAPI isn't important, and arguing the technical fine points will ultimately prove a waste of time. Similarly, trying to convince the Chinese government that 802.11i is better (or at least equivalent) or that (better still) upper-layer techniques are really much more important than securing the airlink will also prove fruitless. Because what's going on here is being different just to be different.

Why do this? It's simple: China is the most important emerging economy in the world. It accounts for a huge percentage of manufactured goods (high-tech and otherwise), and it will, over the next few years, become a major power in engineering and technology. If you're worried about outsourcing, India ain't the problem; China is. By analogy, they're where Japan was in the '50s, and it remains to be seen if they'll stumble as Japan did. But it would be foolish to underestimate the high-tech role China intends to play.

One way to establish the preeminence required for such leadership is to set national standards that are incompatible with what the rest of the world is doing. This forces everyone else to deal with otherwise-unnecessary technologies and can be used to protect domestic industries. And, to be fair, the Chinese make a good point in stating that WLAN security to date has been less than adequate. But am I the only one who finds it ironic that a government still feeling its way toward democracy is all that concerned with the privacy of its citizens' wireless communications.

True international agreement on anything is rare, so none of the above should be a surprise regardless. Such moves will be a key element of global competition from now on.

Craig J. Mathias is principal of Farpoint Group (Ashland, Mass.).

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