By Chris Buckley and Zhou Xin
BEIJING (Reuters) - China urged on Thursday "democratic consultation" over who should lead the International Monetary Fund, leaving room for wrangling over French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde's candidacy.
The comments suggested that it expects at least some negotiation over who should replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the helm of the IMF, even if Beijing ultimately avoids a destabilizing fight and backs Lagarde.
The French government said on Tuesday that China was supporting Lagarde's candidacy, although just hours later China joined Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa in decrying the IMF practice of always appointing a European to head the agency.
In a statement to answer a question about China's stance on who should head the IMF, the Foreign Ministry repeated Beijing's position that senior management of the organization "should enhance representation of the emerging market countries and reflect changes in the world economy."
But it did not say whether China endorses or opposes Lagarde, or the other declared candidate, Mexican Central Bank Governor Agustin Carstens.
They are competing to succeed Strauss-Kahn, who quit as managing director after being charged with sexual assault.
Lagarde announced her candidacy on Wednesday after securing the unanimous backing of the 27-nation European Union. Diplomats say she also has the support of the United States, which with China's backing would make her the overwhelming favorite to lead an organization that has been at the heart of decision-making over the global financial crisis and the euro area debt problems.
"There is a consensus among the leaders in the G20 group that selection of the management of international financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund, should abide by the principles of openness, transparency and being merit-based," said the faxed statement from the Foreign Ministry spokesperson's office, echoing its earlier comments on the issue.
"China has noted that countries concerned have proposed candidates for the executive directorship of the IMF. We hope that the decision will be made through democratic consultation on the basis of these above principles."
China is the biggest of the fast-growing emerging economies that will gain more say at the IMF under an agreement reached last year to account for their growing economic power.
The IMF is not moving with the times, a state-run newspaper in China said.
"The IMF's declining reputation as a reliable firefighter against financial and economic crises indicates that the agency has so far failed to recognize the accelerating shift in the global economy from West to East," said an editorial in the China Daily, the country's main English-language newspaper.
Several countries have called for an open, fair and transparent process by the IMF in choosing the next head of the organization.
Japan's chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano, repeated that call on Thursday, while declining to specifically comment on Lagarde's candidacy.
Thai Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij said during a visit to Tokyo that the position should go to the best possible candidate and the practise of Europe and the United States deciding who should be the IMF head was unsustainable.
"I am sympathetic to the fact that the major task the IMF faces is the European crisis," Korn said after a speech. "However, when Asia had its crisis, we didn't say that the head of the IMF had to be an Asian."
China's central bank governor, Zhou Xiaochuan, said last week that the IMF's future leadership should reflect the growing stature of emerging economies, but he stopped short of saying the head of the group should come from an emerging economy.
But Zhou also said the brittle global economic recovery, which makes a steady hand at the IMF all the more important, may shape Beijing's position.
"We need the support of a strong and vigorous IMF to surmount the current hardships in Europe and ensure that the world economy continues developing in the direction of vigor, sustainability and balance," said Zhou.
(Editing by Ken Wills, Jacqueline Wong and Neil Fullick)