U.S.-China Feud Ensnares Obscure UN Intellectual Property Agency

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The U.S. is working to block China from taking the top post of the United Nations intellectual property agency, in the Trump administration’s latest bid to convince countries of the threat posed by Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and technological prowess.

The fight over who heads the World Intellectual Property Organization, described by people familiar with the strategy, has become such a priority that American diplomats around the world have been told to discuss it with counterparts whose governments will vote on the next leader in early March.

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s team argues that it would be absurd for China — long accused of encouraging its domestic companies to pilfer American and European know-how– to lead an agency that helps develop cross-border policies on intellectual property. WIPO also serves as the central filing system for patent applications that affect multiple countries.

“The Chinese have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars of intellectual property from the United States of America,” Pompeo told reporters on his plane to Europe on Feb. 13. “We are going to make sure that whoever runs that organization understands the importance of enforcing intellectual property rights across nations and across boundaries.”

It’s part of a much broader U.S. effort to push back on China’s rising influence. The Trump administration has had only limited success in its efforts to persuade allies to avoid using technology from China-based Huawei Technologies Co. in their next-generation 5G telecommunications equipment. It has also begun to shift more military forces to the Indo-Pacific region as part of what the Pentagon calls an age of “great power” competition with China and Russia.

Multilateral Agencies

Yet another issue behind the fight over leadership at WIPO is a concern in the Trump administration that the U.S. hasn’t been doing enough to counter China’s growing interest in taking leadership roles at multilateral institutions.

The U.S. suffered a setback last summer, when the administration threw its weight behind a candidate from the country of Georgia to lead the Rome-based Food and Agricultural Organization. One U.S. official said that the U.S. insistence on the Georgian candidate undercut support for a French contender — and that cleared the way for a Chinese citizen to win.

“The race for WIPO leadership has become the moment the U.S. woke up to the fact China is eating our lunch in the multilateral system and that great-power competition will be fought out in many theaters, including UN agencies,” said Daniel Runde, the director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “WIPO may seem obscure, but it’s a standard-maker and holds hundreds of billions of our trade secrets in its digital vaults.”

John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, weighed in on Twitter, saying, “The ability to protect intellectual property is gravely threatened if China becomes the next Director General of the @WIPO.”

Ten candidates are running to lead WIPO, including China’s Wang Binying, a deputy director of the organization who has worked there since 1992 and has a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley.

The favored U.S. candidate is Daren Tang, the chief executive of Singapore’s intellectual property office, who has a master’s degree from Georgetown University in Washington.

A U.S. official, who asked not to be identified discussing the matter, said the administration believes Tang has momentum heading into voting next month. Chinese officials, overwhelmed by the fight against the coronavirus outbreak, haven’t been paying as much attention to the WIPO election, according to a personal familiar with maneuvering over the post.

Guiding the American effort has been Andrew Bremberg, Trump’s former Domestic Policy Council director who became the U.S. ambassador to the UN in Geneva in November after the administration left that post unfilled for three years.

If China’s candidate wins out, U.S. officials fear that Beijing could exploit WIPO’s rules to further examine other countries’ intellectual property. Of particular concern is a mechanism by which companies submit new patents to WIPO, which then has 18 months to verify that no other company has something similar. China could, they fear, use that window and that knowledge to steal the patent.

Chinese intellectual property theft isn’t just a U.S. concern. A January report from the European Commission said that theft from China, along with other countries, is inflicting “irreparable harm” to European businesses.

‘Cold War Mindset’

A Chinese embassy spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But officials were sharply critical of a speech Pompeo gave this month to U.S. governors in which he detailed Chinese outreach to U.S. states and the threats posed by, among other things, state pension funds investing in companies linked to the Chinese military.

“We advise certain people in the U.S. step out of their Cold War mindset and ideological stereotypes, stop discrediting China’s political system, and stop undermining bilateral exchange and cooperation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Friday.

China has taken steps to improve intellectual property laws and enforcement with a rapid-fire series of legal changes amid recent trade negotiations with the U.S.

But that hasn’t convinced many analysts. Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said China has enough leadership posts within the UN system, having taken over four such entities while the U.S. currently heads one.

“The trend we’ve seen when Chinese officials become the heads of these UN organizations is that they use them to meet Chinese national interests,” Economy said. “When and if China is no longer considered to be a threat to others’ intellectual property, that’s the right time for a Chinese person to head the organization, and I think this is not the right time.”

— With assistance by David Wainer, and Susan Decker

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