Technology is not enough to achieve zero-carbon energy. Dr Wenting Cheng is a Research Fellow for the Grand Challenge Project Zero Carbon Energy for the Asia Pacific, based at ANU College of Law. She explains how the debate over the definition of 'green’ alone can be a major setback to promoting global energy transition. Also, as an expert on intellectual property in China, Wenting shares with us her insights into China’s role in international intellectual property and how intellectual property plays out in the current US–China trade war.
1) Tell us a little bit about your background.
I came from Jiuquan, an inland city oasis in the Gobi Desert. I went to university in Shanghai and then pursued my Master’s degree in Beijing. After graduating from Peking University, I worked at the State Intellectual Property Office of China (SIPO) for five years, researching intellectual property law and innovation policies in China. I was struck by the contrast between my remote and community-based hometown and cosmopolitan Shanghai. The capital city, Beijing, also brought a different sensation of hierarchy. These experiences made me acutely aware of the different versions of China – regional China, the rural–urban divide, generational differences and social stratification.
2) In 2018, you completed your PhD thesis on 'China: Rule-taker or Rule-maker in the International Intellectual Property System?'. What was your conclusion?
Intellectual property (IP) has been a crucial issue for China in the past four decades. Changes in IP regulations reflect a larger picture of rapid economic and social transition in China.
My PhD dissertation aimed at understanding how China engaged with the international IP system and whether China’s market power in intellectual property has translated into regulatory power. I concluded that it was not possible to capture China’s role with a simple binary of rule-taker versus rule-maker due to the variety of China’s role in specific IP cases I examined in the thesis (geographical indications, the requirement to disclose sources of genetic resources in patent applications and intellectual property and standards).
I argued that China implemented the principles of IP instrumentalism and a set of foreign policy principles contemporaneously through a process of modelling, while potential conflicts were minimised through a strategy of balancing. The main effect of modelling is compliance, which made the Chinese IP system similar to those of developed countries.
On the other hand, balancing led to constructed inconsistencies in China’s positions on the same issue at different fora. China’s position at the WTO is the classic pro-development, developing country position. However, at the plurilateral level, China quietly exported IP standards to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and countries along the Belt and Road by providing technical assistance. Therefore, the balancing strategy has led China into keeping a low profile in international policy debates on intellectual property.
3) How does intellectual property play out in the current US–China trade war? How is it different from previous intellectual property negotiations?
Intellectual property was central to China’s fifteenth-year negotiation on its accession to the WTO and has been a priority in China–US bilateral relations. In the ongoing US–China trade war, China has been repetitively condemned by the US as an “intellectual property thief”.
In the US–China Trade and Economic Agreement (2020), intellectual property was stipulated in Chapter One and occupied 15 out of the 85-page document. The priority was given to “trade secrets and confidential business information”. For the first time, “confidential business information” is mentioned in US bilateral trade agreement as a type of intellectual property. This unique focus of confidential business information and its criminalisation reflects US concerns over national security.
While China did not deny the necessity to enhance intellectual property standards in the negotiation, it was dissatisfied at the United State's refusal to recognise China’s achievements in intellectual property over the last three decades. As I argued in my thesis, China also considers intellectual property as part of its own grand agenda.
4) With your new research on the 'Grand Challenge Project Zero Carbon Energy for the Asia Pacific', how do law and governance ensure a smooth and sustainable transition to zero-carbon energy in the region?
The focus of the Grand Challenge project is to promote decarbonisation of energy use in the Asia Pacific. I work in an interdisciplinary team to explore barriers and opportunities for large-scale generation and export of renewable energy from Australia to the Asia Pacific region.
Law and regulations play a crucial role in promoting energy transition. One prominent issue is the definition of ‘green’. Differentiating green and non-green products/activities has significant legal and regulatory implications; it also sets boundaries for both public and private regulations.
Unfortunately, the definition of green is not consistent across nations, sectors, technologies, and public and private regulators. This discrepancy may disadvantage renewable energy-based electricity or hydrogen exports from Australia. If a regulatory mechanism recognising green — be it carbon price or cap-and-trade measures — is not in place in the importing country, the importers may ignore emissions and only choose the cheapest available resources.
Therefore, regional coordination of the green definition and standards is important for facilitating renewable energy trade.
What did you want to be growing up
When my supervisor, my father, my husband, my daughter and my closest friends attended my PhD graduation ceremony.
Roald Dahl (at the moment).
As I started learning English at a fairly old age, I missed this great writer in my childhood. When I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and BFG with my daughter, I enjoyed his extensive use of adjectives and exaggerations, unbounded imagination, and sense of humour. It’s never too late to read a children’s book by Roald Dahl!
Learn more about Wenting Cheng's research and publications