Re-elected WTO chief warns of 'challenging times'

Azevedo, 59, was unopposed in the contest to lead the 164-member WTO

Roberto Azevedo, WTO, Director-General
WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo Photo: Reuters (File Photo)

World Trade Organisation chief Roberto Azevedo secured a second term today pledging to build on recent successes despite the "challenging times" confronting global trade.

Azevedo, 59, was unopposed in the contest to lead the 164-member WTO, a body that for the first time since its founding in 1995 must deal with a US administration openly hostile to free trade.

Speaking to reporters following his formal re-election, Azevedo said the WTO was "stronger today than it was in 2013", when his first four-year term began.

He pointed to last week's ratification of the Trade Facilitation Agreement, the WTO's first-ever multilateral deal to come into force.

But the steady flow of protectionist rhetoric from US President Donald Trump's administration has triggered concern about the WTO's chances of further progress.

"Clearly, these are challenging times for the multi-lateral trading system", Azevedo said, without mentioning Trump directly.

"The threat of protectionism cannot be ignored."

Azevedo, a Brazilian, again faced a series of questions about Trump, who during the campaign called the WTO "a disaster" and threatened to withdraw US membership.

Trump's nominee for trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, has also said Washington could ignore WTO rules in order to redress what he considers trade imbalances, notably ones he claims favour China.

"I am not going to comment on the trade policy of any country when the US Trade Representative has not been confirmed", Azevedo told reporters, in reference to Lighthizer not yet having won the approval of Congress.

He also sought to downplay the widely-debated prospect of economic conflict between the US and China, the world's two biggest economies, with tensions also rising between the Washington and the European Union.

"We should not be talking ourselves into a trade war", Azevedo said. "I hope we can avoid anything that even remotely resembles that."

In an interview with Germany's Bild newspaper published Tuesday, Azevedo was quoted as saying that "without trade, American will never be 'great again'" -- a reference to Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan.