An early test for the Biden administration’s approach to China at the WTO

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By quickly rejoining the WHO and Paris Accord, President Biden made clear his commitment to work with allies on the most important issues America faces in the world today. Repairing broken relationships globally is a critical means to even more critical ends, whether it is ending the pandemic or addressing climate change. For the Biden administration, a renewed commitment to multilateral relationships also extends to a more effective strategy to address China’s behavior in the world, whether that pertains to irresponsible lending practices in poor countries or unfair trade practices with the United States and our allies.

But in one early test of this new commitment to lead with multilateralism, the new administration remains silent. After an extensive vetting process within the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala emerged as the consensus pick for WTO director general last fall, just prior to the U.S. elections. Okonjo-Iweala’s selection came as no surprise. She is a widely respected public figure and economist, long known in international circles for her effective leadership in multilateral posts. She also happens to be a U.S. citizen. Unfortunately, the Trump administration blocked her selection in the 11th hour. They did so with brazen indifference to a careful process that worked steadily toward consensus across a wide and diverse group of WTO member countries.

WTO members in Geneva are now exercising considerable patience as they await a signal from the Biden administration to proceed with Okonjo-Iweala’s selection. Some degree of patience is warranted. These are literally the first days of the administration, and very few of the key officials with responsibilities for trade policy are even in their jobs yet.

But to argue for patience also risks legitimizing the notion that the Biden administration faces a real choice here. Advocates for the candidate who ultimately lost out to Okonjo-Iweala now see an opportunity to re-open the contest. And as the process remains in limbo, a question of who will be toughest on China seems to have emerged as a purported test for the administration.

I can say from my time working with Okonjo-Iweala as an official in the U.S. Treasury and subsequently, I have no doubt about her ability and willingness to be tough when toughness is called for. And when it comes to my support for Okonjo-Iweala, I’m in good company. An impressive group of former officials from Republican and Democratic administrations have called on the Biden administration to allow Okonjo-Iweala’s selection to go forward.

Ultimately, the WTO pick does stand as a test of the Biden administration’s approach to China. But the question is not whether Okonjo-Iweala alone will be tough on China. It is whether the administration will embrace the consensus pick in a manner that strengthens the U.S. position in this critical multilateral forum, or whether it will carry forward a damaging legacy of the previous administration by snubbing the will of America’s allies. The choice is so clear as not to be a choice at all. The Biden administration should give Okonjo-Iweala the nod as soon as possible.

Scott Morris is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. He previously served as a senior official in the US Treasury during the Obama administration.

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