At first glance, last week’s vote for the next director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) was a simple contest that pitted Wang Binyang, currently a WIPO deputy director and a former Chinese trade official, against Daren Tang, head of Singapore’s intellectual property office. In fact, however, the contest was the latest skirmish in the geopolitical battle between China and the West.

Tang’s win is a blow to Chinese ambitions, but it is only a setback. China is targeting international organizations to increase its global influence and that strategy demands a response. That response is only taking shape.

Like the 14 other specialized United Nations agencies, the WIPO is a technical body that organizes, directs and coordinates international action and national capacity building — in this case, in the fields of creative activity and the protection of intellectual property. Its denizens are specialists and bureaucrats who set and administer global standards that advance and protect new and original ideas, ensuring that they can be turned into things of tangible value and worth.

Dry and technical as this work may sound, last week’s selection generated interest and energy that was unprecedented in the organization’s history. Tang prevailed in the second round of voting, securing 55 votes to Wang’s 28. That tally is subject to confirmation when the WIPO general assembly convenes in May, but the initial balloting results have never been overturned.

Both candidates were well qualified, but there have been vocal concerns about Wang, although any Chinese nominee would have been subject to the same critiques. The first charge was that she would abuse the power of the WIPO director general.

Some, including former WIPO officials, argued that she could not be trusted to safeguard the 250,000 patents the WIPO takes on each year. When a patent is filed under its Patent Cooperation Treaty, it is kept secret for 30 months while individuals and businesses figure out the best strategy to monetize it. The WIPO director general is the only person (apart from IT personnel) with access to the organization’s state-of-the-art computer programs and guarded facility and can override privacy and security controls.

Officials in the United States have charged China with “stealing” hundreds of billions of dollars of intellectual property, through theft, corporate espionage or forced technology transfer and argue that a Chinese head of WIPO would institutionalize this problem. Chinese officials vehemently reject allegations that their country “steals” intellectual property.

A second charge was that the director general has extensive discretion — some say absolute authority — which can lead to abuse. There is no board of directors, allowing the head to make decisions without supervision from WIPO members. The current director general, Francis Gurry, opened satellite WIPO offices in Russia and China without approval from the organization or its members and approved secret shipments of computer equipment to North Korea and Iran, both of which would violate U.N. sanctions.

The overarching concern is that Wang might bend the WIPO to advance Chinese interests. Those fears assume greater cogence in the wake of comments like that of Wu Hongbo, former undersecretary general for the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, who said that “as a [Chinese] international civil servant, when it comes to Chinese national sovereignty and security, we will undoubtedly defend our country’s interests.”

That extends to agenda-setting and participation in meetings. A Chinese director general would not allow Taiwan to join WIPO programs. That may seem like a technical matter but it can have profound consequences: Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organization severely limits its ability to get information about and respond to the new coronavirus outbreak.

Complaints about Wang reflect a larger fear: that China is weaponizing governance in international institutions to advance its diplomatic and strategic agenda. Currently, Chinese head four of the 15 specialized U.N. agencies — the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Telecommunication Union, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the U.N. Industrial Development Organization; no other country holds more than one top position. Chinese nationals hold the No. 2 post at seven, including WIPO.

Last year, the Center for a New American Security, a U.S. think tank, examined Chinese behavior in seven U.N. organizations and functions and concluded that Beijing “has become more proactive in injecting its ideological concepts into international statements of consensus and harnessing the programmatic dimensions of global governance to advance its own foreign policy strategies.” Key elements of that strategy include:

Redefining democracy in terms of “economic and social rights,” rather than inalienable civil or political rights, which privileges state-led development over fundamental individual rights, and weakens the latter in international law.

Inserting Chinese ideological terms and foreign policy strategies such as the Belt and Road initiative into consensus global goals.

Resolving political issues through bilateral negotiations, where China has far more leverage, rather than through rules-based approaches.

The CNAS authors conclude that “China, through its behavior in international organizations, is making the world safe for autocracy.” The U.S. administration of President Donald Trump agrees and has mobilized its foreign policy bureaucracy to challenge that strategy by, among other things, appointing a special envoy to “counter Chinese influence at the U.N.”

China dismisses all claims of bias or malicious intent. Rejecting charges of IP theft, its advocates counter that China has an exemplary record on intellectual property protection and that it developed in decades what took the West centuries to accomplish. China has been active in international cooperation to boost global IP governance. Those defenders add that China paid $34 billion in IP royalties in 2019 and the World Bank credits China for steady improvements in the ease of doing business in the country — IP protection is one indicator — and the most recent report put China among the top 10 improvers for a second consecutive year.

China also went on the offensive, accusing the U.S. of “bullying” and that opposition to Wang was sexist. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson charged that Washington aimed “to oppress China, [and] … pressure other countries to give up their support for the Chinese candidate under the slogan of ‘Anyone But Chinese.’ They’ve even tried to threaten and blackmail those countries by cutting aids and other disgraceful means.” The nationalist Global Times went even further, claiming to have identified “ulterior motives behind the U.S. campaign against Wang … preserving its fading dominance in trade and technology through political gambits.”

Using international organizations to advance national objectives is part of the privilege of great power status. The U.S. has done that, as have its allies and partners who for many years closely safeguarded their grip on executive authority in the international system. Japan supports programs and organizations — and retains a lock on the top position at the Asian Development Bank — to promote its interests and standing in international affairs.

Those countries insist, however, that the exercise of that power and “directing” those institutions serves more than their particular national interests (while conceding that there is some overlap). China’s objectives and interests seem more narrowly defined.

Increased attention to global governance is a good thing. It dampens bilateral competition and forces attention on coalition building and multilateral cooperation. Regrettably, Japan quickly marginalized itself in the WIPO election. The only Japanese who leads a U.N. organization is Hiroshi Matano, executive vice president of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, a part of the World Bank group. (Japan retains its grip on the top post at the ADB and Yukiya Amano headed the International Atomic Energy Agency — technically not a U.N. agency, but an important international bureaucracy — until his sudden death in 2019.)

Next year, five U.N. agencies — the International Labor Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development, World Tourism Organization, UNESCO and the U.N. Industrial Development Organization — will have leadership contests, as will three more in 2022. Given Japan’s understanding of the importance of rule-making in the international system, it must begin planning now, and working on a strategy — which includes finding the best possible candidates — to shape those elections in ways that benefit itself and its partners.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”

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