Confirmation that the Nigerian candidate to lead the World Trade Organisation (WTO) holds an American passport does not work in her favour under the current geopolitical conditions, according to various Chinese trade experts.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, having pitched herself as “an outsider who offers comprehensive skills and experience needed to shake [the WTO] up”, is considered to be among the front runners for the job, which was made vacant by the premature departure of Roberto Azevedo, who took up a corporate role at PepsiCo earlier this week.
The former Nigerian finance minister’s campaign confirmed to the South China Morning Post that, “like many international civil servants, Ngozi took dual citizenship in 2019, following decades of working at the World Bank and studying in the US”. Her dual citizenship was first reported by Bloomberg.
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In such a politicised moment for global trade, candidates have been at pains to distance themselves from any political factions, particularly with regard to the ongoing rivalry between China and the United States.
Sometimes professionalism is not the most important – political factors get in the way
Analysts have said that Okonjo-Iweala’s disclosure could be an unfortunate mark against her in Beijing’s eyes.
“It is certainly not an asset for her to be chosen as the director general, from the Chinese perspective,” said Kong Qingjiang, a WTO expert at the China University of Political Science and Law. “Some factors are more important than others. Sometimes professionalism is not the most important – political factors get in the way.”
Other candidates’ prospects have also been questioned because of the fraught global political situation. South Korean candidate Yoo Myung-hee could be affected by an ongoing trade dispute with Japan, while the Korean-American military alliance may also alienate support from Beijing, despite her long career in trade.
Mexican candidate Jesus Seade spent a number of years working in Hong Kong and in mainland China, but some suspect that his perceived proximity to the current US government may work against him, since he was instrumental in negotiating the new US-Mexico-Canada free-trade agreement, a revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement, with members of the Trump administration.
“I think it is true that the economic and trade disputes between China and the US will affect the judgment of both sides on the candidates for WTO director general, given the two sides have very contradictory views on the current WTO reform,” said Siqi Li, a professor at the China Institute of WTO Studies.
“What I could confirm is that it is less likely for China and the US to support the same candidate, but I do not think the ‘US passport’ issue that you referred to would be the only determinant reason for China to make its preference on the candidates,” she added. “In my opinion, there are many factors affecting the selection of WTO director general, but the last thing we want to see is an overly politicised situation that would stall the election process.”
In a recent interview with the Post, Okonjo-Iweala’s dual citizenship was not discussed, and the candidate preferred to steer clear of a detailed conversation about the US-China situation, instead opting to focus on areas of potential cooperation in the superpower relationship, and on the WTO’s role in the coronavirus recovery effort.
She has also hired a Washington lobbying firm, Mercury Public Affairs, to “build support for World Trade Organisation candidacy with World Trade Organisation member countries”, according to filings made to the Office of the Clerk of the US House of Representatives’ Lobbying Disclosures database.
Other experts expressed their surprise that her dual citizenship had not been revealed earlier in the process.
“Full disclosure and transparency about all the relevant qualifications and backgrounds of candidates is absolutely necessary,” said Victor Gao, director of the China National Association of International Studies. “Her résumé is very detailed on the internet, but there is no indication that she has a US passport.”
Tu Xiquan, another professor at the China Institute of WTO Studies, added that “transparency is needed here, but I am afraid it will be a factor influencing China’s attitude toward her, given the extreme tensions between the two countries”.
Okonjo-Iweala is one of eight candidates vying to run global trade’s governing body, with many trade watchers now saying it is a two-horse race between her and Kenyan politician Amina Mohamed.
“It may well help Amina. From what I get, members haven’t reacted in public about this. But I suspect that China and the EU will have their views about it,” said one former WTO official, speaking on background.
Other countries are seeing this as a debate over whether you are for the US, which is wrecking the WTO, or on the side of the others who stand up for multilateralism
Chin Leng Lim
Chin Leng Lim, a former WTO scholar-in-residence and current trade law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that in Okonjo-Iweala’s push to present herself as the candidate for change, she already “mirrors if not mimics what we hear from the US” on the need to tear up the Geneva body’s blueprint.
“[The passport] is not a good look in the current conditions, where the US is being seen in a particular light – it is not seen as the WTO’s friend,” Lim said. “Other countries are seeing this as a debate over whether you are for the US, which is wrecking the WTO, or on the side of the others who stand up for multilateralism.”
The “confessional stage” of the leadership race will run until September 17, during which candidates meet individually with representatives of each WTO member.
After that, the WTO’s General Council will attempt to whittle the eight candidates down to a field of five, then two, based on the support each hopeful can drum up from the 164 members.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: fair trade of coronavirus vaccine should top WTO agenda, says Nigerian candidate
- Hamid Mamdouh: US, China urged by WTO hopeful to avoid ‘old traps of cold war and rivalry’
- Yoo Myung-hee: US-China style trade wars could proliferate without WTO ‘reinvention’, Korean candidate says
- Hong Kong’s WTO threat against US ‘Made in China’ ruling puts city in uncharted waters
- Jesus Seade: Mexico’s nominee for top WTO job vows to ‘bring US and China back to the table’