GENEVA -- China surpassed the U.S. last year to lead the world in international patent applications for the first time, while telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies topped the list of companies for a third straight year, the World Intellectual Property Organization said Tuesday.
Total patent applications in 2019 through WIPO's international filing system grew 5% to an all-time high of 265,800, with 52% coming from Asia and 23% each from Europe and North America. Businesses from China, Japan and South Korea accounted for 60% of the top 50 corporate filers, underscoring the region's status as a global driver of innovation.
Computer technology produced the largest share of applications by field, followed by digital communication. Fierce competition in cutting-edge fields such as fifth-generation wireless and artificial intelligence has spurred businesses and researchers to protect the rights to their work.
China's filings jumped 11% last year to 58,990, representing a more than 200-fold rise from 1999. The government has provided generous subsidies to domestic manufacturers under its "Made in China 2025" industrial modernization initiative, and the country has become a major player in fields such as drones, AI and regenerative medicine in recent years.
"China's rapid growth to become the top filer of international patent applications via WIPO underlines a long-term shift in the locus of innovation towards the East," said Francis Gurry, the organization's director general.
The U.S., which had remained the top filer of international patents since 1978, dropped to second after an increase of 3% to 57,840 applications. Japan ranked third with 52,660.
Top corporate filer Huawei -- which produced nearly two-thirds more applications than the runner-up, Japan's Mitsubishi Electric -- boosted research and development spending by 30% last year to 131.7 billion yuan ($18.6 billion), investing aggressively in 5G. Chinese smartphone maker Oppo jumped to fifth place from 17th as it worked to develop handsets that deliver high performance at a low cost.
China's lead in patent filings looks certain to escalate the country's battle with the U.S. for technological supremacy, a fight that already has ensnared WIPO. A Chinese candidate to head the United Nations agency lost last month's election after lobbying by Washington. The U.S. feared the potential consequences of WIPO having a leader from a country that President Donald Trump's administration has accused of stealing intellectual property.
Beijing, meanwhile, has declared itself a high-tech superpower and poured massive amounts of money into R&D. The country's top court in January 2019 formed an appeals tribunal specifically for intellectual property cases.