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U.S.-China Rivalry Spills Into Geneva Vote on Obscure UN Agency

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The latest skirmish between the U.S. and China culminates this week in Geneva, where members of the United Nations agency for intellectual property are set to pick a new director.

The U.S. has been on a campaign to stop China’s candidate, Wang Binying, from winning the election to lead the World Intellectual Property Organization, which helps set global policies. U.S. diplomats have been lobbying more than 80 governments that will vote, arguing that Beijing could use its leadership of WIPO to pilfer technology.

China has struck back by decrying the U.S. effort as a smear campaign and brandishing Wang’s credentials: She’s worked at WIPO for three decades and has degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University. Beijing has also accused Washington of threatening to block World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans for countries that vote for Wang, a charge the U.S. rejected.

The intense fight to lead a relatively obscure arm of the UN underlines the growing intensity of the U.S.-China rivalry even after the two countries reached a phase-one trade agreement earlier this year. That tariff war has already sapped global trade, choked supply chains and boosted worries of a new Cold War as competition between them intensifies in a range of different forums.

“From intellectual property to cyber security, from traditional military muscle flexing to trade wars to creeping social distrust at the people-to-people level, the U.S.-China rivalry increasingly cuts across all aspects of the relationship,” said Bates Gill, a professor of Asia-Pacific security studies at Australia’s Macquarie University, who has written numerous books on China.

Multilateral institutions are one of the newest battlegrounds. In June last year, China’s Qu Dongyu overcame American opposition to become head of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Then in January, the U.S. State Department named Mark Lambert, who had been the special envoy for North Korea, to a new role focused on countering China’s influence at international organizations.

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

Writing in the Financial Times last week, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro argued that China shouldn’t lead WIPO because its commitment to protect intellectual property doesn’t match Western standards. He also accused China of wanting greater influence over the UN in order to advance political objectives such as isolating Taiwan.

Asked about the threat to deny World Bank and IMF loans, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said, “The United States doesn’t threaten nations, it works with them in partnership to protect international norms and values, including the safeguarding of intellectual property. Ridiculous accusations of this nature might best serve to reveal one nation’s burning desire to assume leadership of WIPO.”

Ten candidates are running to lead WIPO and succeed Francis Gurry, an Australian who has led the organization since 2008. The U.S., which isn’t putting up one of its citizens, is backing Daren Tang. The chief executive of Singapore’s intellectual property office has a master’s degree from Georgetown University in Washington.

‘Disgraceful Means’

China sees the U.S. campaign to deny Wang as part of a wider effort to suppress its rise. Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesman, called Wang “the most competent, competitive and experienced among the candidates” and accused the U.S. of hypocrisy for seeking to deny a qualified woman for the post.

“In order to oppress China, the U.S. is doing all it can to pressure other countries to give up their support for the Chinese candidate under the slogan of ‘Anyone But Chinese,’” Zhao told a briefing in Beijing last week. “They’ve even tried to threaten and blackmail those countries by cutting aids and other disgraceful means.”

A Chinese official who asked not to be identified said that while Beijing has had problems with IP protection, the U.S. and Europe have as well. But China has made a lot of progress, is committed to protecting IP and has established a legal framework to do so, the official added.

Members of WIPO’s Coordination Committee will meet this Wednesday and Thursday to vote. The election will take place in rounds, with the candidate who receives the fewest votes being removed from each succeeding ballot.

With leadership contests looming for five other UN agencies next year, this week’s outcome in Geneva is likely to just be the start of increased competition for posts previously removed from great-power politics.

“Influence in international institutions is an important form of power in the 21st century, as it can shape the rules and norms of global governance,” said Zhang Baohui, a professor and director of Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “As a result, competing great powers see it as some kind of commanding heights. We will see more such rivalry in the coming years.”

(Updates with analyst quotes in fifth and last paragraphs)

--With assistance from Nick Wadhams.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: John Liu in Beijing at jliu42@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at dtenkate@bloomberg.net, Bill Faries

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