A Chinese candidate has emerged as the most likely to secure the top job at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, an appointment that would enhance Beijing’s ambitions to match its economic power with diplomatic clout. China’s pick for the FAO’s next director general, Qu Dongyu, is currently vice-minister at China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and an experienced international negotiator. He faces a secret ballot this monthamong FAO’s 197 member nations at the agency’s headquarters in Rome, against candidates from France, Georgia, and India. If elected, Qu would become China’s most senior international official, head of an important strategic agency for developing the rural areas and alleviating hunger in poor nations, many of them which have signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative across Africa, Asia and elsewhere. “It’s a close race, and people are playing their cards close to the chest,” said one African diplomat. “But China is everyone’s friend and the candidate is very strong.” With the one country, one vote system, small island nations like St Kitts and Nevis have the same clout as the United States. Insiders say China has been able to use its financial power to leverage support from allies in Africa. Even so, China is leaving no stone unturned. An example is China’s Agriculture Minister Han Changfu’s trip to Vanuatu in March to request the island’s support for the Chinese FAO candidate. Also, Qu was in Rome last month to lobby the G77 group of developing nations and Nordic diplomats. China is everyone’s friend and the candidate is very strong African diplomat “The FAO election is always intensely political,” said Steve Wiggins, Principal Research Fellow with the UK’s Overseas Development Institute, who has been working on agricultural and rural development in Africa and Latin America since 1972. “The election has little to do with the agricultural agenda and more to do with which part of the world the candidates are from. China is well placed with the economic power and ability to confer investment.” Traditionally, FAO rotates the regions where its director generals are from – and Asia has not held the post since India’s Binay Ranjan Sen left in 1967. The US tends to maintain the top job at the World Food Programme, FAO’s sister agency responsible for food aid. China is also benefiting from the support of FAO’s outgoing director general, Brazilian Jose Graziano da Silva, who is said to have been lobbying Latin American nations on Beijing’s behalf. Both Brazil and Uruguay, big exporters of agricultural products recently announced they would be supporting Qu, as pork and soybean exports to China soar amid the African swine fever outbreak (which FAO is assisting China to curb) and Chinese restrictions against agriculture imports because of the ongoing US-China trade war . Deadly in pigs but harmless to humans, why is African swine fever such a threat to China’s economy? The US is expected to support the Georgian candidate, the country’s former agriculture minister David Kirvalidze, a staunch free trader who has been in North America recently talking to the big agriculture producers there. But because of the FAO’s voting system, and with the Indian candidate Ramesh Chand on the back foot, the biggest threat to the Chinese candidate comes from France’s Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle. FAO has yet to be headed by a woman, and the former executive director of the European Food Safety Authority can count on most of the EU countries supporting her – but not all. The UK has yet to state its position saying it is looking at all candidates and Italy, the FAO’s host nation and the first G7 country to sign up for the belt and road plan , was also said to be backing China, although South China Morning Post was unable to confirm this. Traditional allies in Frances former African colonies may also be tempted by Chinese investment clout. Armyworm to bite China’s under pressure food supply within two months as trade war tariffs limit US crop imports China was one of the FAO’s founding members when the agency was established just over 70 years ago and benefits from respect among man senior FAO staff for its own efforts over the last 40 years that has pulled millions of people out of hunger and poverty. “In the 1970s when we were still suffering from starvation, FAO offered technical help to Chinese agriculture and this helped us a lot,” Qu said in a rare interview at the FAO two years ago. “We do want closer cooperation with FAO and we do want to share our experience with other countries.” China has long been the main donor to FAO’s South-South programme to increase technical cooperation between developing countries to help small farmers. But with the director general post for an Asian candidate imminent, China has increased quite dramatically its contribution to the FAO budget in recent years, and was the agency’s third largest donor last year behind the US and Japan, up from sixth place in 2015. Tilapia, a fish to feed the world, and the deadly virus that may destroy it Whoever wins will face enormous challenges – not least how to feed the world in the age of climate change and shrinking land resources. Headquartered in the gigantic former headquarters of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s colonial African ventures on Rome’s Circus Maximus, FAO is seen by many in the aid and anti-poverty world as unwieldy and inefficient. Budget cuts, short staff contracts and political infighting have hampered the agency’s work and many other organisations now exist covering some of FAO’s mandate. Under Graziano da Silva, FAO has also been accused of becoming more authoritarian. It is currently pursuing through the courts for libel the editor of Italian Insider for stories criticising some of FAO’s “unethical” hiring practices. Wiggins said the next FAO director general needs to focus. “He or she needs to create a legacy if FAO is to have any role in the world, by doing just one or two things that need to be done,” Wiggins said. The growing revolt against Chinese ‘conquering’ French farms He suggests reducing or even eliminating agriculture’s 30 per cent contribution to greenhouse gases and drawing on technology to gain a better picture on what is happening on small farms round the world. The leadership post will be for a four-year term starting August 1, 2019. If as expected China does win, Qu could come under pressure to raise the profile of the Belt and Road Initiative in rural development worldwide. Chinese currently head three UN agencies: the International Civil Aviation Organisation, United Nations Industrial Development Organisation and the United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs. The World Health Organisation (WHO) was previously headed by Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun , a former Hong Kong director of health who took up the international role in 2006.