New WTO chief faces challenges

Updated: 2013-05-09 15:04

By Ding Qingfen in Beijing and Zhang Yuwei in New York (China Daily)

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Roberto Azevedo, Brazil’s ambassador to the World Trade Organization since 2008, will be the first representative from the emerging markets to lead the international body since 1995.

Azevedo beat Herminio Blanco, Mexico’s former trade minister widely reported to be backed by the United States and the European Union, on Tuesday to become the new director-general for the WTO. He will succeed France’s Pascal Lamy, who is expected to step down on Aug 31.

Azevedo is the first Latin American and the first diplomat from the BRICS bloc, which comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, to head the Genevabased organization. His victory is viewed as a sign of the emerging economies’ rising clout in the WTO, where developed countries led by the US and EU have historically played a larger role.

Chinese trade officials and analysts warned that a challenging job awaits Azevedo in reinvigorating the organization and advancing a multinational trade system, especially with the Doha Round of trade talks stalled and trade protectionism increasing worldwide in recent years.

The Doha Round of negotiations began in Doha, the Qatari capital, in November 2001 with the goal of lowering global trade barriers. Talks deadlocked in 2011 due to divisions between developed and developing economies on major issues such as agriculture. Developed countries have seized on opportunities amid the European debt crisis to sign bilateral and regional trade deals, such as the US-led Trans-Pacifirc Partnership.

Azevedo, 55, has been closely linked to the WTO since its creation before becoming Brazil’s ambassador to the organization in 2008. He was his country’s chief negotiator for the Doha Round of talks.

In a congratulatory letter to Azevedo, Minister of Commerce Gao Hucheng said China expects the new head to bridge the gap between developing and developed economies, adding that China will continue to support him and the WTO in dealing with multilateral trade issues.

Coming from Brazil, an emerging market with the world’s seventh-largest economy, Azevedo, is committed to reinforcing a multilateral trade system. He has said the WTO’s priority should be to accelerate progress in the Doha Round of talks.

Zhang Xiangchen, director of the Commerce Ministry’s Policy Research Department and China’s former deputy representative to theWTO, said:“Azevedo’s winning of the race sends a positive signal that multilateral trade talks will get a lift” from the current deadlock.

“His background of coming from an emerging economy means he will more easily feel sympathetic to concerns and opinions from developing economies,” Zhang added.

Sun Zhenyu, head of the China Society for WTO Studies and former Chinese ambassador to the WTO, said Azevedo will “bring fresh phenomena” to the WTO as well as to emerging countries and the Doha Round of talks. “Azevedo’s background brings the WTO and emerging countries closer and facilitates communications between developed and developing countries,” Sun said.

But Debra Steger, a WTO expert with the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Canada, said it takes time to see what differences Azevedo will make in his new position.

“He is more a junior figure, I’d say, on the world stage in the trade circle,” said Steger, who knows Azevedo personally through negotiations with him in the Uruguay Round.

Describing the new leader as “very knowledgeable in trade policy” and a “very careful and meticulous” trade official, Steger said: “This is is a decision which says ‘we have an insider.’”

“When it comes to [the BRICS] trade interest, sometimes they take very different positions and they are not aligned with each other at all and sometimes they have opposing interests,” said Steger, also the author of Peace Through Trade: Building the WTO.

In 2011, Brazil filed a currency-dumping complaint with the WTO to protect itself against cheap imports of manufactured goods. Brazil, which sought to target currencies that were artificially low and would result in international trade imbalances, said it was not targeting the Chinese yuan.

Azevedo’s BRICS background, Steger said, won’t greatly influence the BRICS’ status in the WTO because the bloc doesn’t speak with one voice.

“It’s not a matter of what he wants to do, it’s more a matter of what the members will let him do as Lamy found,” said Steger, adding the WTO is a “unique” organization where “members control” it regardless how strong its leader is.

In the Doha Round, Azevedo has been recommended as spokesman for some 20 emerging economies in the negotiations on agriculture.

He once said that if he became WTO head this would give him greater access to give the multilateral trade talks a fresh start.

In a video on the Brazilian Foreign Ministry website, Azevedo said, “Ambitious solutions are required for more trade liberalization, to eliminate major trade distortions, to use trade to bring development for all, but especially to the poorest countries.”

In the race for the WTO leadership, Azevedo beat eight other candidates.

Li Zhongzhou, a former o cial from the Ministry of Commerce and former member of the team that negotiated China’s entry to the WTO in 2001, said: “His success is welcome among the emerging economies, but the job will be arduous and the challenges will be huge.

“It’s time to sit down and get to the real business, with the (leadership) campaign over.”

Contact the writers at cn and yuweizhang@

Reuters contributed to this story.