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U.S.-China Trade Dispute Affects The Search For A New Head Of WTO

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The heart of the Trump administration's feud with China over the past three years has been trade. Now that is spilling over into the search for a new head for the World Trade Organization. Candidates for the top job are trying to appeal to both the U.S. and China, as NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: On paper, it probably looks like a challenging dream job, heading up a multilateral body that governs the rules of $25 trillion worth of international trade. Eight candidates are campaigning for the position.

ANABEL GONZALEZ: So they need to meet with a lot of ministers, a lot of directors, a lot of ambassadors. And for the candidates, it's a bit like this speed dating process, you know?

NORTHAM: That's Anabel Gonzalez, herself a candidate for the director general's job in 2014, now with the Peterson Institute for International Economics. She says the election process involves building consensus among the WTO's 164 members around one candidate, winnowing out others along the way. Gonzalez says it's important to avoid a country opposing or blocking a candidate. She says this is more difficult than normal this time around.

GONZALEZ: The risk is that if the U.S. expresses preference for one of the candidates, public preference, then it risks being blocked by other members. And likewise, if China expresses its preference for one of the candidates, that candidate risks being blocked by the U.S.

NORTHAM: The WTO in particular has raised the ire of President Trump, who has called it the single worst trade deal ever made. Trump sees the organization as being unfair to the U.S. and that its preferential system helped China catapult to an economic superpower. But Gonzalez says both sides have their issues.

GONZALEZ: On the one hand, the U.S. is of the view that the WTO rules do not constrain China enough and that the dispute settlement system favors China, whereas China is concerned that the U.S. will weaponize the WTO and exclude China from the benefits of global trade.

NORTHAM: Candidates to lead the WTO are pressed on how they can possibly narrow the gap between China and the U.S. when they appear at campaign events. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a Nigerian-born economist and international development expert and considered one of the front-runners for director general. She says it's critical to repair the deep well of distrust between China and the U.S.

NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA: We are used to looking at what are the differences between these members but trying to find what are some commonalities around which you can begin to build this trust and have some wins.

J P SINGH: I don't think the director general of the WTO is going to be able to resolve this conflict. It's going to have to be a political solution perhaps outside of the WTO.

NORTHAM: That's J.P. Singh, professor of international commerce and policy at George Mason University. He says a new director general will have to work on reforming the body that governs much of international trade, such as developing new rules for digital trade. Singh says despite the mistrust and trade animosity between the U.S. and China, there is little doubt the top position at an organization as important as the WTO will be filled soon.

SINGH: I think the chances are pretty good that we might, only because it may not be politically feasible for the Trump administration to walk away from the WTO or scupper this process. And China, it's clearly within their interest to get one. Then their next question is, if we do get a director general, what do they do next?

NORTHAM: And what priority they'll place on trying to solve the issues that have turned the U.S. against the WTO.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.