From military to economic war: The Graphene Patent War heralds a new era of power struggle in international politics

Ever since the advent of nuclear weapons, maximizing influence in international politics has no longer been one of straightforward military dominance. As exemplified during the Cold War in the 20th century, any large scale military conflict between two world powers would quickly devolve into a nuclear standoff, assuring both sides to suffer heavy casualties should the conflict escalate to a nuclear level1. Such pyrrhic nature of military conflicts precluded either the United States or the Soviet Union from achieving the sole global superpower status militaristically.

To further complicate the matters, even conventional warfare tactics sans nuclear weapons have proved to be increasingly ineffective in realizing military and political objectives in the post-WWII era. Whether the conflict was a limited proxy war such as the Korean War and Vietnam War, or a post-Cold War conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, the evolution of guerilla warfare and terrorism yielded a rapidly diminishing return on investment2.

Of course, this does not mean that military capacity of a country is no longer relevant in tipping the world balance of power. Defense sector is still the bottom-line of a country’s prowess because it gauges the the countries’ ability to protect their sovereignty. Yet, when the dust settles and the world military landscape is more or less in a gridlock state, countries rely on their more liquid asset to jockey for world influence: economy.

An excellent example of economy maximizing the power of a country is Japan. Despite lacking a true military force due to post-WWII restrictions, Japan grew its Gross National Income to 3rd in world, behind the United States and China3. As a result, Japan was able to exercise an unprecedented level of leverage in international politics by means of capturing market shares of key industries including the automobile industry4. In fact, even though Japan lost much of its luster as an Asian economic powerhouse by the end of 1990s, it still enjoys a high level of international prestige.

With the premise that modern international politics is largely driven by a realist theory of economic maximization, how does graphene, a layer of graphite just one atom thick, play into the countries’ jockeying for power? The answer lies in the explosion of patent applications towards the fabrication and the use of graphene. Ever since the initial discovery of graphene in 2004, the number of patent applications have grown exponentially from less than 300 to over 84005. Even between July 2011 and February 2013, the number of published patent applications for graphene nearly tripled from approximately 3000 to over 84006. Such assertion of intellectual property via patents became the new Cold War among countries as infringement of an intellectual property can implicate the said parties in a multibillion dollar lawsuit. High profile patent cases such as Apple v. Samsung indeed demonstrate the impact of patents as Samsung faces up to $1.0 billion in damages and $18.3 billion in fines7. As the force of law continues to precedes the law of force in the international arena, graphene is the archetype of a growing movement of different countries using intellectual property to reap the economic benefits of an emerging technology.

So graphene is one of many emerging technologies with a tremendous number of patent applications. But what makes graphene different from all of the other patent wars? The idea of protecting intellectual property is certainly not a new idea, so what make the graphene war the hallmark of a new era? There are two main reasons for this: the growing respect for cross-border jurisdictions and the potential of graphene to make an enormous impact across various key industries.

Thanks to the lack of large scale military threats as a means of conflict and ideological resolution, respect for international arbitrations increased. For example, intellectual property disputes during the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union were essentially nonexistent because a constant threat of war led to a mutual mistrust of the respective parties’ legal frameworks. If Soviet Union threatened to launch its nukes and obliterate the U.S. tomorrow, why should the U.S. respect Soviet Union’s intellectual property laws? However, the end of the Cold War impelled countries to participate in open international trade. The participation and access to a single global market led to the creation of a series of international agencies including the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL). Because abiding by the regulations created further economic opportunities for the signatory countries, international arbitration began to enjoy an increasing power of enforcement. Such proliferation of legal institutions that arbitrate international disputes reinforced the power of patents to an unprecedented level, especially as the countries enjoy access to not only a regional market, but a global market. In conclusion, the strength of the patents grew proportionally to the strength of the international enforcement of law, which made patents a much more powerful source of economic leverage than ever before.

More importantly, the reason that graphene heralds a new era of economic jousting is the material’s sheer potential to make an impact on the world economy. The potential of graphene is largely characterized by its extremely attractive properties that can be harnessed to become a disruptive force in major industries8. For example, graphene exhibits higher electrical conductivity than any other material on earth. Also, the extremely short carbon bonds of graphene make graphene the strongest material on earth. Moreover, because graphene is only one-atom thick, the material can cover a vast surface area while being virtually weightless. Graphene can also be folded, rolled, and manipulated like a sheet. Potential applications of graphene include supercapacitor, touchscreen devices, solar cells, desalination and more9101112 It has been touted as the miracle material that can solve many of world’s problems including energy and water security. For that reason, the graphene patent war distinguishes itself from other patent wars for its scalable impact on the world as a game-changing factor across most major industries.

Finally, graphene is poised to be one of the first products on the market where the entire product cycle (discovery, research and development, and commercialization) protected by a global legal framework. The level of openness in research facilitated by the published patent applications promotes a truly global monopolistic competition. And such structure of competition has great implications on the balance of world economy. Because the product cycle of graphene is documented from beginning to end, the field is wide open for any interested party. As such, the graphene patent war serves as a litmus test of how countries will battle for patents in order to maximize their economic power over rival countries in the modern international political arena.



1Barry R. Posen, Inadvertant Escalation: Conventional War and Nuclear Risks (Cornell University Press, 1991)












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