GENEVA -- The U.S.-China showdown spread to the race for the next director-general of the World Trade Organization on Monday, with the two sides backing separate candidates for the position that will lead the process of setting new global trade rules.
Beijing is believed to be in favor of Amina Mohamed a former foreign minister from Kenya, a country China has heavily invested in. The U.S., on the other hand, is apparently backing Tim Groser, a former New Zealand trade minister who is likely to push trade body reforms that Washington has advocated.
WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo abruptly announced his resignation last month, setting off a selection process that began Monday.
Mohamed, who has won praise for consensus-building skills, would be the first woman as well as the first African to serve at the top of the WTO. Her talent for negotiations was on display when she chaired a WTO ministerial meeting in 2015.
Through state-owned banks and enterprises, China has invested heavily in various resources and infrastructure development projects in Kenya and other African countries. Within the WTO, Beijing has billed itself as the nation representing the developing world.
Some observers say Beijing believes promising commerce rules favorable to developing nations would win their support for its favored candidate.
Meanwhile, Groser, who had also served as ambassador to the U.S. and has expressed strong concern about China's rise, is more aligned with the U.S. If Groser gains backing from the U.S. for the job, he could push forward reforms in line with Washington's agenda.
The WTO has had six directors-general. The last four appointments have alternated between candidates from developing and developed nations. Since Azevedo hails from Brazil, chances are high that the next leader will come from a developed nation.
Groser would fit that pattern. But the European Union apparently has another candidate in mind due to the bloc's distaste for WTO reforms proposed by the U.S.
There is an effort to nominate EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan for the job. Media reports from Ireland, Hogan's home country, say he is interested in the job.
The WTO has been called the defender of free trade, but the body's dispute settlement system has been paralyzed since the U.S. blocked the appointment of appellate judges. The Doha Round trade talks have also stalled, leaving the WTO unable to tackles issues related to the digital economy and other next-generation trends.
Bruised from the trade war with the U.S., China sees it as essential to boost its clout within the WTO and work toward gaining an international body's support for its claims. Although U.S. President Donald Trump has favored bilateral trade deals, the White House cannot afford to ignore a multilateral framework and thus cannot let China expand its influence in the WHO.
Such a tug of war between the two economic powers has already surfaced in another global institution. When the U.N.'s World Intellectual Property Organization sought to nominate a new director general in March, the U.S. drummed up majority support to block the selection of a Chinese candidate.
Trump has said he will pull the U.S. out of the World Health Organization, accusing Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of being cozy with China. That decision came after the WHO's refusal to grant Taiwan observer status for the World Health Assembly in May, in line with China's wishes.