Mexico’s nominee for top WTO job, Jesus Seade, vows to ‘bring US and China back to the table’
Jesus Seade, the Mexican candidate to lead the World Trade Organisation, has pitched himself as the “trade expert” who can bring both the United States and China back to the multilateral negotiating table.
Mexico’s chief trade negotiator said that his “expertise and track record as a trade facilitator” will show that he is not interested in the politics, which have hamstrung the Geneva-based World Trade Organisation (WTO) for years, if he succeeds Roberto Azevedo as director general later this year.
“I think it's very important to bring [China and the US] to the table. I am convinced that for China, there're few things more important on the international scene than the strength of the WTO,” Seade told the South China Morning Post.
“If you bring in a politician to head the WTO, [the first discussion with the Europeans and the Americans on particular kinds of subsidies] will go over the head of a director general. You need somebody who is completely in touch with that stuff, but at the same time, a good negotiator and a familiar face, who knows the Chinese, the Europeans, the Africans, the Americans culturally. I am a global man and trade expert. That is what they need.”
Seade is currently undersecretary for North America within Mexico’s Foreign Ministry, but launched his candidacy for the WTO from his base in Hong Kong, where he has been riding out Mexico’s coronavirus lockdown with his family, who continue to be based in the city.
The 73-year-old also remains Mexico’s top trade negotiator, and helped lead the trilateral talks that saw the North American Free Trade Agreement revamped as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which is due to take force on July 1.
Some have suggested that this experience, combined with his lengthy experience in Washington with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, will see him disqualified by American rivals for being “too close” to the US.
“Mexicans are generally considered to be too close to the US, so the Chinese and others may block him on that account,” said one former White House official, who added that Seade was “well-liked” in Washington, and “is perceived to have acquitted himself well” when he led the tail end of the USMCA negotiations in 2018.
Another former USMCA negotiator said that “you won’t get anything out of the US in terms of who they will support, at least not for a while. If the US expresses support for a candidate, that could sink them more than help them, so it’s better to hold it close”.
But Seade dismissed claims that his close ties with Washington could detract from his suitability in the eyes of Beijing.
“I have lived a long time in China and in Hong Kong. My family continues to be [in Hong Kong]. I know China very well. I was vice-president of a university [in Hong Kong] and then another one in China and all along conducting, well received policy research on China's trade system,” Seade said, referring to a decade-long stint as vice-president of Lingnan University in Hong Kong, followed by two years at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Shenzhen campus from 2017.
He was lured back to Mexican politics to lead the USMCA negotiating team in 2018, but has now been nominated by Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to succeed incumbent WTO chief Azevedo, who announced that he will cut his tenure short in August.
Seade confirmed that he had spoken to Chinese ambassador to Mexico, Zhu Qingqiao, but that he had received “no feedback”, adding that “it is absolutely proper for them to look at the candidates and to decide what they want to do”.
Regarding the US government, Seade said that while US President Donald Trump “has certain grievances and he has vented them in his style, which is very forceful”, he does not expect the US to leave the WTO – a threat which has hung over the Geneva organisation since Trump entered the White House in 2016.
In prepared remarks ahead of an address to US Congress on Wednesday, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer called for a “broader reset” in tariffs at the WTO, suggesting that the US will continue to push for aggressive reform of the organisation in the run up to the presidential election in November.
There has been some speculation that this might be Lighthizer's final congressional address ahead of the election, but Seade said he “hoped Lighthizer would stay” and described him as “a fantastic person, very honest and competent and strong”.
But he suggested that neither Lighthizer nor his prospective successor would be inclined to leave the WTO, but would instead “improve the house, not quit it”.
“But they will certainly not relent on that [reform]. They want to have changes on dispute settlement in rules, in many areas … they will want that. And that's fair,” Seade added. “We just have to see the talks, what exactly is wanted by them, by others and how to find a package that works best for both of them, for all of them.”
Nonetheless, he conceded that the WTO is “in the emergency room”, paralysed by Washington’s refusal to nominate new judges to the WTO’s top appeal body and diminished by recent shifts towards protectionism and unilateral tariffs.
“It has lost a lot,” said Seade, vowing to be a candidate for reform. “And so we really have to fix it and bring back the energy, because it is essential for the world. The US-China relationship is full of friction, which is bad, and which creates a very nervous situation for the whole world.”
But even if Trump were to lose the election later this year, the disgruntlement with the WTO goes beyond this administration, Seade said.
“My impression is that there is something close to a national consensus in the United States criticising the WTO,” he said. “It's not President Trump, it is not Bob Lighthizer, it also comes from the Democrats, you have this kind of a stance.”
When approached for comment on Seade’s candidacy, Wang Huiyao, a Chinese government adviser and president of the Centre for China and Globalisation in Beijing, pointed to the fact that the current director general was Brazilian, asking “should we not consider candidates from Europe, Asia or Africa as well?”
It is a question that has been posed frequently, with former Nigerian finance minister and World Bank managing director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala emerging as a strong alternative.
But Seade appealed to members to choose the “right person for the job”, regardless of nationality.
“There have been three Europeans [as director general] since the WTO was created, and before that only Europeans in the [General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade]. Nobody complained because they were very competent people,” Seade said. “What you need is the best person for the job, particularly when the WTO is in the dire crisis that it finds itself in – a terrible situation.”
Seade described Ngozi as a “superbly impressive person, not with a track record of trade, but a tremendous track record as a doer, a maker in finance”.
He described Egyptian nominee Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh, a WTO stalwart, as operating “very much at the technical level”, but said that his own experience “combined the two”.
“I've been dealing with the [technical] issues, even discussing whether that comma is better dropped,” Seade said, in reference to the often painstaking details of trade negotiations. “If you choose the wrong person for political expediency, you might be condemning the WTO to continue in insignificance.”