Thai deputy PM tells Greg Torode of his visions for international trade

Supachai Panitchpakdi may be one of the most avid private chess players in Thailand but the Deputy Prime Minister has never faced an end-game quite this messy.

The close of his campaign to be the next director-general of the World Trade Organisation is just two days away but a long-delayed consensus is still being thrashed out among its 134 members.

On the streets of Bangkok the public pressure is palpable. Those on whom the delicacies of international trade politics are usually lost are suddenly jabbering about it with all the excitement of a kick-boxing bout.

Mr Supachai would not only be the first Asian to head an organisation long seen as dominated by the West, he would be the first Thai to lead a major international body. Considerable national pride has been invested.

Insiders still put Mr Supachai just ahead of his only remaining rival, former New Zealand prime minister Mike Moore.

They warn, however, that the race is still too hard to call. Mr Supachai has the firm backing of Asia but still cannot call the entire European Union his own as final lobbying intensifies.

A letter from Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai to US President Bill Clinton requesting 'special friend' Washington to make good on open promises not to stop consensus forming around Mr Supachai has gone chillingly unanswered.

European Trade Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan and Thai diplomats have gone public with fears of a secret veto against him by a Washington some believe is seeking to dominate an international body for domestic purposes.

Mr Supachai himself is loathe to name, much less crucify, his international enemies at such a sensitive juncture. But he is quick to confirm that the fight has been both longer and more bloody than expected, and that the WTO is too important to be dominated by a few major nations.

'It is the fight of my life and yes, it has been bruising,' he says. 'I never thought it was going to be this long and this hard.' Warning that any current divisions thrown up by the campaign - already running more than four months late - must not be allowed to set into bitterly-held positions, he insists he is the one to forge a new unity.

'If we don't approach the new round in the most prudent manner, in the most cautious manner and most understanding manner some hard feelings will be created,' Mr Supachai says.

'I wouldn't go as far as some quarters and suggest that the very future of the WTO is at risk but I look ahead to the next meeting and say we must preserve the unity of the WTO at all costs.' Speaking in the gilded splendour of a prime ministerial reception room in the Thai parliament, Mr Supachai is clearly tired and a little ruffled after months of lobbying missions to Africa, the Americas and Europe. But he is also clearly confident and still manages to show his enthusiasm.

He talks quickly and passionately about long-held visions for international trade and seems eager to get down to business.

Throughout the interview, he keeps half an ear on parliamentary debate underway outside. Even as he swings across the world on his campaign, he still must play a key role in leading Thailand out of its worst economic crisis in 50 years.

Serving also as Commerce Minister, Mr Supachai faces the thorny task of trying to boost flagging exports amid an austere fiscal regime demanded by Finance Minister Tarrin Nimmanahaeminda.

Falling trade volumes mean, he insists, exports must play second-fiddle to the domestic economy if recovery is to be sustained.

Exhausting as his dual roles may be, he claims they give him a unique background to expand and enhance the WTO's global free trade mission.

Should he replace outgoing Italian Renato Ruggiero for a new four-year term, Mr Supachai's lists his priorities as the urgent broadening of the organisation to take in as many new countries as possible.

Only by swiftly drawing in poor nations can both the benefits and cause of free trade be fairly extended, he says.

It is a line that sits at the heart of his mantra. And if certain special treatments are needed to offer support, then they should be considered.

Crucial to this will be a smooth ministerial meeting in Seattle in December - a session that will be pivotal to any new round of international trade talks.

'We need to have a blend of all sorts of countries, so there will be a balance when we come to negotiations for a new round . . . we need countries like China and Russia,' he says.

'We need things to be more simplified so we can have more than 150 members . . . only then can we have a multilateral framework in a true sense of the word.

'What I intend to do is have full participation of all the membership with fair distribution of benefits.' As he articulates his vision for the understanding and involvement of the poor and weak, Mr Supachai is determined to avoid the tag of being some sort of third world stooge.

Lobbying comes naturally now and he constantly peppers his conversations with the importance of 'neutrality' and 'independence' in any future director-general.

Only a truly international body could smoothly implement trade standards covering customs rules and regulations and environmental and labour issues, he warns.

A larger body would also assist the creation of a trade financing and legal arm and could only boost efforts to work far more closely with the World Bank International Monetary Fund - both key planks of his policy.

A larger more vigorous body could make trade more efficient - a vital step if falling trade volumes are to be reversed.

Mr Supachai has been an avowed free-trader since his student days as he worked towards a PhD in development economics under Nobel Prize winner Jan Tinbergen at Rotterdam's prestigious Erasmus University.

The son of an elite Bangkok family with long ties to the Crown Property Bureau, Mr Supachai left for Europe under a Bank of Thailand scholarship and returned to work for it for 12 years, breaking his bond to enter the volatile arena of Thai politics in 1986.

Returning to banking as president of the Thai Military Bank, Mr Supachai was seduced back to serve as deputy prime minister in charge of economics in Mr Chuan's first spell in government in 1992.

Fluent in Thai, Dutch and English, he quickly emerged as one of Thailand's most respected technocrats, as eloquent as he was outspoken. An advocate of the need for equality for the developing world, he has long argued trade should not automatically be linked to labour, human rights or environmental issues.

Such views have required delicate refinement and amplification as the leadership race has hotted-up.

Various US lobbies are suspicious and even one local commentator warned he could prove a 'fox in charge of the hen house' considering Thailand's poor environmental record and former extensive use of illegal migrant labour. But Mr Supachai is adamant he would ignore neither the environment nor labour issues.

He is keen for a more robust WTO legal framework to unify workable environmental laws, and that 'core' issues such as child and forced labour be dealt with in tandem with the International Labour Organisation. Again he pins it back to his plan for far greater reach into struggling nations.

At the same time, he insists he will not let the organisation be diverted from its ultimate task, or worse, taken hostage by certain issues.

'I have to make it clear that as a director-general I cannot be a promoter of some particular issues per se - other than free trade for the whole world, fair and free trade,' he says.

'If there are other issues that the membership agree need to be tackled, Supachai would not be standing in the way. I would be trying my best to get everyone on board.

'If we can provide resources and assistance to all these countries we may be at last able to sail this multilateral boat through stormy weather . . . and it is stormy weather.

'These days there are additional problems, falling trade volumes, unemployment. In parts of Africa there is up to 80 per cent unemployment. If trade can help solve these issues then we can help advance the cause of international liberal trade.' While there is little marked difference between the policies of Mr Moore and Mr Supachai, perceptions and background count for a lot in the shadowy diplomacy of consensus in which virtually all players mask their motives.

Mr Moore is passionately free trade and was involved with a radical Labour government in New Zealand that through the 1980s turned its economy overnight from one of the most hide-bound to one of the most open anywhere.

At the same time, he is from a vastly different background and has long links to the labour movement. While an urbane young Mr Supachai was studying and playing chess across Europe, Mr Moore was facing unemployment and all manner of manual work, eventually cutting his political teeth as a social worker and union representative.

Facing down a Western liberal, Mr Supachai appears a little defensive, saying one of his key hopes is that he is not judged by political back-ground or make-up.

Despite their differences, Mr Moore and Mr Supachai forged a close friendship through years on the free-trade hustings. Mr Moore was even an early backer of Mr Supachai until he decided to launch his own drive.

Two weeks ago the pair met for more than an hour in private in Geneva. The meeting sparked speculation that they might be willing to serve as each other's deputies - a logical result whoever wins.

'We remain the best of friends and our relationship will easily survive this,' Mr Supachai says.

'But deputy? No way. This has been an all or nothing race. There are simply too many other things to do.' Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Supachai Panitchpakdi is considered one of Thailand's most experienced and capable technocrats with broad political, academic and banking experience. After serving 12 years at the Bank of Thailand he entered politics for the first time in the late 1980s as an MP for Bangkok and deputy finance minister. Married with two teenage children, he is a keen chess player and painter and also operates a private economic think-tank.

I wouldn't go as far as some quarters and suggest that the very future of the WTO is at risk but I look ahead to the next meeting and say we must preserve the unity of the WTO at all costs If we can provide resources and assistance to all these countries we may be at last able to sail this multi-lateral boat through stormy weather . . . and it is stormy weather