GENEVA - A Singaporean candidate is ahead of a Chinese lawyer in a race to head the world patent office as Beijing seeks its fifth U.N. leadership role in a move critics say would give it an unprecedented level of influence over new technologies.
Voting opened on Wednesday at the 193-member Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which shapes global rules for intellectual property and oversees a patent system in which China and its firms, like telecoms giant Huawei Technologies, have a growing stake.
The Coordinating Committee, a group of 83 countries chaired by France, met behind closed doors to choose a nominee. After a first round of voting, Singapore's Daren Tang was leading with 37 votes versus 19 for China's Wang Binying, a senior manager at the agency, two sources said. Ghana was third with 16.
Under the leadership of outgoing Australian Director-General Francis Gurry, WIPO has overseen an explosion in patent filings and has begun preliminary talks on whether artificial intelligence, or machines, can be inventors.
The U.N. agency, unlike many others which are underfunded, expects revenues of 880 million Swiss francs ($921 million) in 2020-2021, mostly due to patent filing fees, it says on its website.
China already has its nationals heading four U.N. agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Industrial Development Organization and the International Telecommunications Union.
That is more than any other member state in what the International Crisis Group's Richard Gowan described as part of a bid "to win more influence" within the world body, especially in economic and development fields.
However, Chen Xu, China's ambassador to the United Nations, said three of them would leave office within two years. "There is no ... intention to dominate, at least in terms of the numbers, over international organizations," he said.
Watching 'very, very closely'
Intellectual property (IP) has been at the heart of a trade war between the United States, which along with other Western countries backs Tang, and China.
However, a January trade deal includes stronger Chinese legal protections for patents.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters last month that Washington was following the vote "very, very closely" and would "make sure that whoever runs that organization understands the importance of enforcing intellectual property rights across nations and across boundaries".
Chen described Wang as "highly competent" and stressed the country's commitment to cooperation on IP.
The other candidates are from Ghana, Peru, and Colombia. Candidates have been showcased at cocktail parties and missions have exchanged "note verbale" with vote pledges in recent weeks and lobbying continues on the sidelines of the vote, diplomats said.