China wages its campaign for global influence stealthily, partly by winning control of little-known but influential U.N. agencies. The State Department decided last summer to push back hard — and just won a potentially important victory in protecting global technology rights.

The U.S. diplomatic success came last Wednesday, when the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) voted 55 to 28 to back a U.S.-supported candidate, Daren Tang of Singapore, over China’s nominee, Wang Binying. The Chinese complained that the Americans pressured other countries to endorse the U.S. choice, and they were right.

The WIPO vote is an encouraging sign that the Trump administration is taking a more active, forward-leaning role in international organizations, rather than cede the ground to the Chinese. These organizations are especially important now, when the world is facing global problems such as the novel coronavirus and climate change.

Administration officials say Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was peeved last June when China’s Qu Dongyu was elected director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization by a lopsided majority of its 191 members. China’s win at the FAO followed the 2018 reelection of its candidate Houlin Zhao as secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union and the 2018 reappointment of Fang Liu, a veteran of China’s civil aviation bureaucracy, to head the International Civil Aviation Organization.

WIPO and the other agencies may sound like obscure bureaucratic outposts, but they help shape standards and rules for global commerce. WIPO logs 250,000 patent applications every year, including more than 55,000 from the United States, and it’s supposed to keep them secret for 18 months until they’re published. The director general “exercises control over every aspect of WIPO’s operations,” according to James Pooley, a former WIPO deputy director general.

What was especially galling to U.S. officials was that China, which the FBI views as the leading thief of intellectual property, would be guarding the secrets. Pompeo said in congratulating Tang that his victory was “good for the world” and would “advance WIPO’s core mission” of protecting technology innovation and property rights.

Beating China at the global influence game isn’t easy. It requires the diplomatic equivalent of basic blocking and tackling. Last year, State began mobilizing support to resist China’s WIPO candidate. “We know states received a combination of threats and promises of inducements” from Beijing, a senior State Department official said.

U.S. ambassadors pushed back by lobbying governments around the world, enlisting key allies Britain, France, Germany, Japan and Australia to resist the Chinese campaign. Two senior diplomats traveled to Africa and Latin America to urge countries there to move away from regional candidates in the second round of voting. Starting in January, Pompeo personally met or called top officials from 28 countries about the issue.

For a State Department that was bruised by tension between career diplomats and political appointees during the long Ukraine investigation, the WIPO fight was a welcome chance to pull in the same direction. “This campaign showed the building working together,” said Undersecretary David Hale, the top career official at the department, in an interview.

“It’s been years since we beat the Chinese at something like this,” said one close Pompeo adviser. This official credited “really damned good work by our career Foreign Service officers” for the WIPO win, a sentiment you don’t always hear from this administration.

The next big global diplomatic test will be Internet governance. Russia, with Chinese backing, won approval from the U.N. General Assembly in late December to write a new cybercrime treaty to replace the U.S.-backed Budapest Convention, even though many analysts view Russia as a menace in cyberspace.

The State Department initially seemed to be caught napping on the treaty vote, but the senior official said the administration recognizes that “Russia is interested in undermining” the existing cybersecurity regime. “We are coordinating with international partners to ensure that any treaty negotiation is fair, constructive and strives towards greater consensus on global efforts to fight cybercrime,” the official explained.

The global coronavirus panic reminds us why a U.S.-led “rules-based order” is so important. Without global cooperation, it’s impossible to coordinate efforts to contain and mitigate disease, intellectual property theft or anything else. An “America First” approach that relies only on sovereignty is doomed to fail. The Chinese have been skillful in playing the international card. As Washington stepped back from engagement, Beijing stepped forward.

The Trump administration could have taken a pass on WIPO — let the Chinese win the election and then resign from the organization in protest. In that case, “the worst offender would be in charge” of protecting technology, said the senior official. It’s good the administration decided instead to stand and fight.

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