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Captainless WTO sees no land in sight

China Daily | Updated: 2020-09-01 09:13

Besieged trade body cast adrift as global rifts torpedo process to pick new chief

GENEVA-As Roberto Azevedo left the World Trade Organization on Monday, the institution is facing multiple crises without a captain-a situation experts warn could drag on for months.

A logo is pictured outside the World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters next to a red traffic light in Geneva, Switzerland, October 2, 2018. [Photo/Agencies]

Any future WTO leader will head an organization mired in stalled trade talks and struggling to curb trade tensions between the United States and China.

It must also help member states navigate a devastating global economic slump sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.

The global trade body faces relentless attacks from Washington, which has crippled the WTO dispute settlement appeal system and threatened to leave altogether.

Many observers fear that intransigent US positions could paralyze the WTO process of designating a new director general, leaving the organization leaderless for the foreseeable future.

"The US demands that the new DG(director-general) shares US concerns, many of which are about addressing concerns related to China," said Manfred Elsig, a professor of international relations at the World Trade Institute in Bern, Switzerland.

"Given that the DG is chosen by consensus, this tough stance complicates the selection."

The WTO has already presented a timeline for selecting one of eight candidates in the running to replace Azevedo within a few months.

But Elsig warned that "the process is already torpedoed".

"It could well be that many WTO members want to wait until after the (US) election, hoping that the administration changes," he said.

Azevedo's surprise announcement in May that he would end his second WTO term 12 months early forced the organization to speed up its usually lengthy process of selecting a new leader.

Three Africans, two Europeans, two Asians and one Latin American quickly threw their hats in the ring.

Three-round consultations

The organization is due next month to begin three rounds of consultations in which all member states will voice their preferences, gradually whittling down the list.

The process, based on consensus, is expected to last until mid-November.

But soaring international tensions and growing politicization of picks to head UN agencies and other international organizations could trip up the tentative timeline.

Members failed last month to pick an acting chief from among four deputy directors-something that is normally a straightforward process.

Brussels and Washington butted heads over whether German Karl Brauner, or Alan Wolff from the US, should get the job, in what observers say was unprecedented politicization of an administrative decision.

Elvire Fabry, a researcher at the Jacques Delors Institute, said that "the US veto" of widely backed Brauner was first and foremost linked to US President Donald Trump's wish to "increase the power play toward the European Union ...ahead of the elections".

"Making such a concession, even for an interim (chief), would have been too much for him," she said, adding that Washington might also expect the interim period "to be longer than predicted, and does not want to allow a European to settle into the position."

A Western trade diplomat who asked not to be named said there was concern over how far some might be willing to go to prevail.

The candidates themselves appear to be taking the turmoil in their stride.

"I have confidence in the selection process and look forward to this concluding in good time," Liam Fox of Britain said.

Kenyan candidate Amina Mohamed insisted that she saw "no reason to doubt that the timetable (announced for the selection process) won't be realized".

Sebastien Jean, head of the French research center Cepii, said: "It is difficult to measure the harmful power the US is exerting on this process, to know how far they can and want to go to interfere and disrupt things.

"I think that is the great unknown. There is a feeling that the United States will probably remain fairly passive and show little goodwill until Nov 3," he said.

Some think the wait could last until Jan 20, when the next US president is sworn in, before things will move forward.

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