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This Is Why China Might Be Backing An African For WTO Director-General

WTO director general candidates ngozi yoo africans on china
Credit: CNN

As Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria and Yoo Myung-hee of South Korea battle it out for the Director-General position in the World Trade Organization, scholars have revealed that even though “China has concerns about both candidates,” Ngozi remains Beijing’s choice. 

The position, which was vacated by the Brazilian Roberto Azevedo in August, was keenly contested by candidates from Britain, Kenya, and Saudi Arabia. Ngozi and Yoo made it to the second cut. Experts say though Beijing faces a trade-off between the two female candidates, Ngozi might serve well China’s interest. 

South China Morning Post noted that “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 organization between 2002-05. Yoo is the third South Korean to run for the role.”  

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, South China Morning Post reported. Irrespective of this assertion, Beijing will still go in for her for several reasons. 

It has been speculated that 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. Among WTO’s four deputies, one 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.

According to one academic familiar with China’s position, “the result of the second round of the director-general race is in line with our expectation…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.”

Both female candidates, of which one is supposed to fill the position by Nov 6, wish to “focus on completing existing WTO negotiations on fisheries and e-commerce to introduce a sense of progress into the institution.” This they believe “might encourage the US and China to bring their long-running trade dispute to the WTO negotiating table.” 

“I believe a revitalized, 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 South China Morning Post. “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?” Okonjo-Iweala also said.  

What are some of the other reasons why China might be backing an African for this key WTO Position?

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