China loses battle for control of another UN specialized agency

March 09, 2020 13:43
The headquarters of the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva. Photo: Reuters

The defeat of China’s candidate for director-general of a key United Nations specialized agency – the World Intellectual Property Organization – was a triumph for Singapore, with Daren Tang becoming the first Singaporean ever nominated for the leadership position of a UN agency.

It was also a victory for the United States, which had lobbied hard for Tang against the Chinese nominee, Wang Binying. Washington made clear that it was strongly opposed to WIPO falling under the control of a Chinese national. The 55-to-28 vote was a stunning setback for China.

Peter Navarro, director of US trade and manufacturing policy, last month wrote in the Financial Times that “giving control of WIPO to a representative of China would be a terrible mistake” and alleged that “Chinese IP theft costs the American economy between US$225 billion and US$600 billion annually”.

Intellectual property was a major issue in the prolonged negotiations that led to the "phase one" trade agreement signed by the US and China in January. Under that accord, China agreed to provide an early Action Plan to strengthen intellectual property protection.

China’s reputation for protecting intellectual property is improving but still poor. Last year, it ranked 49th on the Intellectual Property Rights Index among 129 countries. Singapore ranked fourth.

The sensitivity surrounding intellectual property made control of WIPO critical where the US was concerned. Critics said that if WIPO, whose job is to safeguard intellectual property, was controlled by China, it would be like “appointing the fox to guard the hen house”.

But the issue extended beyond WIPO. Chinese nationals already head four of the 15 UN specialized agencies, which support the work of the United Nations in various spheres.

China’s nationals currently lead the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Telecommunications Union and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. If China had won the WIPO vote, its nationals would lead five of the 15 specialized agencies.

This would have given it hugely disproportionate influence over many areas. At present, no other country leads more than one agency.

The vote within the 83-member WIPO coordinating committee reflects the geopolitical influence that the US still retains and its ability, when it works with like-minded partners, to block the Chinese steamroller, which at times appears unstoppable.

Last year, when Washington opposed China’s candidate for director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, the US was so ill-prepared that the American-backed candidate from Georgia lost in an embarrassing 108-to-12 vote.

That development greatly alarmed Washington and, in its aftermath, a special position was created in the State Department whose occupant’s job is to focus on the “integrity of multilateral institutions” largely by containing the influence of China at the United Nations.

That job went to Mark Lambert, formerly special envoy for North Korea. One of his first missions was to ensure that China did not win control over a fifth UN specialized agency. He and other American officials flew to Geneva, where WIPO is headquartered, to lobby for Singapore.

Beijing has greatly expanded its influence within the United Nations since it was first admitted in 1971, replacing Taiwan as the legitimate government of China.

In the decades since then, Beijing was transformed from a student of the international multilateral mechanism to an actively involved participant in all spheres of the world organization as it gained economic, political, military and diplomatic heft.

China has focused on strengthening its position in a multilateral international order with the United Nations at its core, emphasizing multilateralism and “democracy in international affairs”, with each country having one vote in the UN General Assembly.

A study last May by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, on China and the United Nations reported that China was “increasingly using its economic, political and institutional power to change the global governance system from within”.

“Rather than China becoming more like the rest of the world, the Communist Party is trying to make the rest of the world more like China,” it concluded. “Washington and its allies must not allow that to happen.”

But that is easier said than done. While the battle over WIPO has been won, the struggle is by no means over. As Navarro said in his Financial Times piece, leaders of five other UN specialized agencies are scheduled to be chosen next year, with more to follow in 2022.

If the US is to compete effectively with China, it will have to abandon unilateralism and return to a multilateral perspective. Walking away from institutions such as UNESCO simply creates vacuums that China will eagerly fill.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.