Hunt for the next global trade chief

OUTGOING WTO CHIEF ROBERTO AZEVEDO Former Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevedo stepped down as World Trade Organisation director-general on Aug 31, earlier than planned, because of personal reasons, and left a leadership gap. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRES
Former Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevedo stepped down as World Trade Organisation director-general on Aug 31, earlier than planned, because of personal reasons, and left a leadership gap. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
CANDIDATE #1: MS NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA Nigeria's former finance minister has garnered the most support among members to become the next global trade chief, said a WTO spokesman.
Nigeria's former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has garnered the most support among members to become the next global trade chief.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
CANDIDATE #2: MS YOO MYUNG-HEE South Korea's trade minister is backed by the US. It is unclear whether the US will change its stance if Democrat candidate Joe Biden wins the Nov 3 election.
South Korea's trade minister Yoo Myung-Hee is backed by the US. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

What is the story? The hunt for the next World Trade Organisation (WTO) chief ran into complications earlier this week, after the United States opposed the appointment of Nigeria's former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to the post.

The world's largest economy is backing candidate Yoo Myung-hee, South Korea's trade minister.

Both Ms Yoo and Ms Okonjo-Iweala have been lobbying for the hot seat.

The leadership gap was created after former Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevedo stepped down as WTO director-general on Aug 31, earlier than planned, because of personal reasons.

A WTO spokesman said on Wednesday that Ms Okonjo-Iweala had garnered the most support among members to become the next global trade chief.

But on the same day, the Office of the US Trade Representative criticised the popular choice, stating that "the WTO is badly in need of major reform" and must be "led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field".

Why it matters The next global trade chief has the difficult job of navigating the growing tensions between the US and China, the world's second-largest economy, and pulling the global economy out of the Covid-19 crisis.

A Guardian report in May noted that the European Union, Japan and the US had called for stricter WTO rules to curb market-distorting subsidies and forced technology transfers, a move set to pressure China.

The WTO chief's job had been made harder by the pandemic that saw a number of governments around the world halting exports on medical supplies, among other essential items, as an initial reaction to the crisis.

The halt hurt the global economy

The goal of the 25-year-old organisation, which has 164 member countries, is to help negotiate multilateral trade deals.

It also aims to settle cross-border commercial disputes and monitor trade flows.

But the WTO is under fire for stalled reforms, according to a Nikkei report on Thursday.

Mr Azevedo told organisation members in a May meeting: "The WTO may not be perfect, but it is indispensable all the same. It is what keeps us from a world where the law of the jungle prevails, at least as far as trade is concerned."

What next? Consultations are currently being held, and the WTO General Council will decide on its next chief by Nov 9. A factor in its choice will be the US election next Tuesday.

It is unclear whether the US will change its stance on Ms Yoo if the Democrats' candidate Joe Biden wins the election.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2020, with the headline 'Hunt for the next global trade chief'. Print Edition | Subscribe