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International relations

WTO leadership race emerges as newest arena for US-China rivalry

African and Mexican candidates in spotlight as trade group looks for consensus

  © Reuters

GENEVA -- The eight nominees to replace the World Trade Organization's departing Director-General Roberto Azevedo include more women and African candidates than in the past, but a drawn-out race is expected as the U.S. and China jockey for advantage in writing the rules of global trade.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance minister of Nigeria, was considered an early front-runner. She served at the World Bank for 25 years, reaching the No. 2 post. Okonjo-Iweala is well known internationally, with deep connections in many countries.

But the late entry of another African woman, former Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed, threw a curveball into the race. Mohamed has chaired top WTO decision-making bodies, including the General Council and the Dispute Settlement Body. She also has a reputation for effective consensus building on trade issues -- a vital skill in a group that makes decisions by unanimous agreement.

With Egypt fielding a candidate as well, the continent -- which accounts for 30% of the WTO's 164 members -- has yet to unite behind a single nominee.

But China has the potential to change that.

Observers speculate that China will throw its weight behind a candidate from a region where Beijing has invested heavily through its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. China and African nations share an interest in devising favorable trade rules for traditional industries such as agriculture and fishing.

Complicating matters are the trade tensions between Beijing and Washington, which has objected to the WTO's classification of China as a developing economy eligible for special treatment.

"I look for someone who understands the nature of the problem of free economies dealing with China," U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told lawmakers last month when asked about the WTO leadership race.

Washington might back Jesus Seade, undersecretary for North America in Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the country's chief negotiator for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade, the successor to NAFTA. Seade, who worked as associate vice president for global affairs at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, told U.S. outlet Politico that he can offer a "bridge" linking WTO members.

The WTO has finalized the field of candidates, who include South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, trade negotiator Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh of Egypt, former Moldovan foreign minister Tudor Ulianovschi, former Saudi economy minister Mohammed Maziad Al-Tuwaijri and Liam Fox, a former U.K. international trade secretary.

Candidates will give speeches and field questions at the three-day General Council meeting starting July 15. The head of the council will work with members to narrow the field to one candidate. The WTO, with its emphasis on building consensus, does not vote on issues unless necessary.

But some observers do not expect the organization to settle on one candidate by the time Azevedo steps down in late August. If this is the case, a deputy director-general will be chosen for the post on an acting basis until a decision can be made.

The leadership race comes amid deep dysfunction at an organization meant to be the guardian of free trade.

Since U.S. President Donald Trump took office in 2017, he has blasted the WTO as "unfair" to Washington, particularly regarding American trade disputes with China. The U.S. has blocked appointments to the Appellate Body, the highest level of the WTO's dispute settlement system, bringing its work to a halt for the first time since the group's creation in 1995.

The European Union and 16 WTO members -- including China but not the U.S. or Japan -- agreed in January to establish a temporary appeals system, which launched April 30.

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