GENEVA — The U.N.’s intellectual property agency says China has eclipsed Japan in the No. 2 rank among countries filing international patent applications and is on track to surpass the United States in the top spot within three years.

Referring to China, Director-General Francis Gurry of the World Intellectual Property Organization says “a new competitor has arrived” to key Western countries that have long dominated the rankings — a key bellwether of international innovation that could reap vast economic benefits in the long term.

WIPO said Wednesday that inventors worldwide filed 243,500 international patent applications through its service last year, a 4.5-percent increase from 2017.

The United States accounted for just over 23 percent of those, and China nudged past Japan — both accounting for about one in five filings.