The field of candidates to lead the World Trade Organization (WTO) was cut to two on Thursday, in a historic move that means the Geneva-based body will get its first female director general.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria and Yoo Myung-hee of South Korea will fight it out for the hot seat vacated by the Brazilian Roberto Azevedo in August, with candidates from Britain, Kenya and Saudi Arabia failing to make the second cut, it was widely reported on Thursday.
Should Okonjo-Iweala win, she would be the first African director general, while Yoo would be the second Asian, following Thailand’s Supachai Panitchpakdi who headed the organisation between 2002-05. Yoo is the third South Korean to run for the role.
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The heavily-fancied Kenyan, Amina Mohamed, saw her bid scuppered when the European Union united as a block to back Okonjo-Iweala and Yoo, while her bid was also hampered by a split African vote. The six-nation East Africa Community supported Mohamed, with the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States backed Okonjo-Iweala, Bloomberg reported.
Britain’s Liam Fox and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri were also eliminated before the final round.
China-watchers have long intimated that Beijing prefers an African candidate, but trade experts in the mainland said China had concerns about both finalists.
Former Nigerian finance minister Okonjo-Iweala holds a US passport – a fact which emerged during the campaign – and spent many years working in Washington at the World Bank, adding to the perception she is close to the US.
But if Yoo were to win, it could damage China’s chances of holding onto the deputy director general position, due to concerns over regional balance in the leadership. The WTO has four deputies, one of which is guaranteed to be American, with the other three positions rotating between Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia. China’s Yi Xiaozhun has been a deputy since 2013.
“The result of the second round of the director general race is in line with our expectation,” said one academic familiar with China’s position. “China has concerns about both candidates. It is a rather difficult trade-off between the two.
“But in my personal view, the deputy director general position is very important for China, so China will consider this seriously. Also, although Ngozi [Okonjo-Iweala] has a US passport, she still represents Africa, which means the trade and development issues will matter a lot in her WTO agenda. This is in line with China’s expectations for WTO reform.”
Kong Qingjiang, vice-chairman of the China Society of WTO Law Research, agreed the final candidates were not to the “full satisfaction of China”, but either would be acceptable.
“That is the cost [China] has to pay to work the WTO at this moment,” Kong said.
The final two choices come from very different backgrounds.
Yoo is South Korea’s first trade minister and has spent almost her entire career working exclusively on trade issues, helping negotiate trade deals with both the United States and China.
Okonjo-Iweala has had a long career in politics and multilateralism, having twice held the role of Nigerian finance minister, and also held senior roles in the World Bank and currently at Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance.
In earlier interviews with the South China Morning Post, both candidates said they would focus on completing existing WTO negotiations on fisheries and e-commerce to introduce a sense of progress into the institution, which has seen its negotiating function fail and its highest dispute-resolution body paralysed because the US refused to approve new judges.
Both said that reaching realistic goals like these might encourage the US and China to bring their long-running trade dispute to the WTO negotiating table.
“I believe a revitalised, well-functioning WTO could provide a meaningful platform for both China and the US to have in-depth discussions and explore a way forward on trade-related issues,” Yoo told the Post last month.
“The starting point would be to have them engage at the multilateral setting. Perhaps their trade tensions, to some extent, are due to the lack of progress at the top.”
Referring to the fisheries and e-commerce talks, Okonjo-Iweala said it was important to look at points of progress between nations, rather than “how distant members are from one another”.
“You have to build confidence, and that means doing certain things concretely. That’s what’s needed – to say: what are the areas that the US and China are actually doing something in common?” she said in an August interview with the Post.
The WTO hopes to fill the role by November 6, with the global trading system facing unprecedented challenges. The next leader will need a “particular set of skills”, said one former Geneva official, speaking on background.
“It is a bit like herding cats while walking in front of them. Leadership without decision-making powers,” the official said. “Persuasion without insistence. Force of personality softened by the ability to stand aside while building bridges.”
More from South China Morning Post:
- US-China trade war casts long shadow over WTO leadership race
- China’s WTO win over US offers no concrete reward but Beijing gets moral high ground, experts say
- Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: fair trade of coronavirus vaccine should top WTO agenda, says Nigerian candidate
- Yoo Myung-hee: US-China style trade wars could proliferate without WTO ‘reinvention’, Korean candidate says
- Coronavirus hit to global trade ‘deeper but not as long’ as thought, as WTO sees recovery under way
This article China faces ‘difficult trade-off’ as WTO leadership race heads into final round first appeared on South China Morning Post