World trade chief warns against 'talking ourselves into a crisis'

World Trade Organization (WTO) Director General Roberto Azevedo speaking during a press conference on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, on Jan 20, 2017, in Davos. PHOTO: AFP

DAVOS (Reuters) - The world should be wary of stumbling into trade wars that would destroy jobs, World Trade Organisation Director-General Roberto Azevedo said on Friday.

Azevedo was speaking at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, hours before the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, who has promised sweeping changes in trade policy with the aim of protecting US workers.

"I've heard a lot in Davos about trade wars. That would destroy jobs, not create jobs," Azevedo said after a trade ministers' meeting attended by representatives of 29 WTO members.

"I'm urging everyone to show caution, to show leadership. We must definitely avoid talking ourselves into a crisis."

Trade had helped to lift a billion people out of poverty, but more needed to be done to share the benefits, since the net positive effect of trade was meaningless to someone who had lost their job, he said.

"At the same time we must recognise that the major driver of change is technology, is innovation. Attacking trade won't help this. Putting up trade barriers won't help this."

The WTO chief said he had not had direct contact with the incoming US administration and it was difficult to speculate about its trade policies. It would be necessary to see if US trade concerns could be addressed by existing WTO tools.

The ministerial meeting, including representatives of the outgoing U.S. administration, China, Russia and the European Union, agreed that "protectionism was not the right answer" to anti-trade sentiments and concerns about technological change, said Swiss Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann.

"Instead, trade should be made more inclusive and its benefits spread more widely," he said.

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