GENEVA (Reuters) - Taiwan blocked the appointment of China’s first judge on the World Trade Organization’s highest court on Monday, in a surprise move likely to aggravate relations between the two rivals.
The WTO dispute settlement body had been due to approve the appointment of four new members of the WTO’s appellate body, but Taiwan asked for that item to be removed from the agenda, WTO officials said.
Other members including the United States, Japan and the European Union insisted it should be included, and the chairman of the meeting, Australia’s WTO ambassador Bruce Gosper, was forced to adjourn it to find a way out of the impasse.
Taiwan — according to a copy of its statement made available by its WTO mission — said it could not agree to the agenda “because we have deep concerns on the question of impartiality and qualification of one of the recommended candidates to serve the Appellate Body.”
The statement, faxed by the mission to Reuters, did not specifically mention the Chinese lawyer, Yuejiao Zhang, who was one of three women and one man nominated to the seven-member appellate body by a selection committee set up in June.
WTO sources said they believed it was the first time the appointment of an appellate judge had been blocked in this way.
The judges play an important role settling trade disputes worth billions of dollars between the WTO’s 151 members.
Dispute settlement is at the heart of the multilateral trading system and its system of rules which are umpired by the WTO to ensure that countries can trade fairly with each other.
Member states can seek a ruling from a WTO dispute panel if they believe another country is violating the rules. The appellate judges handle appeals against panel findings.
Taiwan’s procedural move clearly took other WTO members by surprise, officials said.
The selection committee interviewed candidates, consulted with members and circulated the list of four names to all members on November 7.
“Chinese Taipei certainly knew on the 7th of November who the recommendations were, so they could have objected informally before, but this is the first formal opportunity for them to object,” said one WTO official, using the name Taiwan is referred to in the organization.
Chinese diplomats reacted cautiously, noting that Taiwan had not objected to any candidate by name or nationality.
But Taiwan’s move highlighted growing sensitivities at the WTO between China and the self-ruled island that Beijing regards as a rebel province, to be reunited with the motherland by force if necessary.
Earlier this month China said it would veto any revised text from the chairman of industry talks in the WTO’s long-running Doha round of talks on a new trade deal if it meant China faced tougher tariff-cutting requirements than other recent members.
Diplomats said this came down to a refusal by China, which joined the WTO in December 2001, to be treated any differently to Taiwan, which joined in January 2002, and is the spokesman of the WTO’s recently acceded members’ group.
Because new members slashed their tariffs as part of their “entry fee” on joining the WTO, there is recognition that they should get special treatment in the current negotiations.
But China has done so well out of membership that many countries say it should not be treated as favorably as other new members.
“Can we treat China differently? The strong answer from China was not different to Taipei,” said one diplomat.
Taiwan’s move on Monday, by holding up the entire dispute settlement meeting, also blocked the formation of a panel to investigate a U.S. complaint into rules affecting the distribution of entertainment products such as films and music in China.
Additional reporting by Robert Evans in Geneva