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PARIS/BEIJING (Reuters) - Beijing dug its heels in against Western domination of the International Monetary Fund on Thursday as French frontrunner Christine Lagarde prepared to build on her headstart in the race for the top IMF job.
China joined other increasingly powerful but less developed nations to voice misgivings about a stitch-up recruitment process that has kept the top post in European hands ever since the IMF was created after World War Two.
Undaunted, officials in Paris said that the French finance minister Lagarde was planning a support-seeking tour that would take in new powers such as Brazil and China, after announcing on Wednesday that she was a candidate.
The top post at the world's leading rescue lender is up for grabs since Frenchman Dominique Strauss-Kahn, arrested on May 14 on charges of attempting to rape a New York hotel maid, quit. He denies the charges and has vowed to fight to clear his name.
Before securing the post in 2007, Strauss-Kahn toured the world in an attempt to build on the backing of Washington and Europe for a candidacy that ran into similar flak at the time.
China and other giants may be looking for a commitment that their turn will come soon, even if Lagarde manages to land the post this time round.
In a statement distributed by the Chinese foreign ministry's press office, Beijing made it clear that it wanted a more open selection process.
"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.
"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."
India, another one of the big developing powers that are most commonly described as the BRICS (Brazil, China, Russia, India and South Africa), was quick to defend their corner too, saying it had heard nothing of China backing Lagarde.
"There is no such communication to us from the Chinese ED (executive director) on these lines," Arvind Virmani, India's executive director at the IMF told Reuters in an interview.
In a statement on Tuesday, the eve of the announcement that Lagarde was running for the job, the top IMF representatives form Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa said that the top job should be based on competence, not nationality.
They proposed "abandoning the obsolete unwritten convention that requires that the head of the IMF be necessarily from Europe."
The convention they referred to is essentially a carve-up between the biggest shareholders of key international bodies.
Under it, Europe and Washington the top IMF post goes to a European and the top corresponding position at the World Bank on the other side of the street in Washington goes to an American.
As Lagarde plans her campaigning tour, the IMF vacancy was expected to come up for discussion on the sidelines of the meeting of world leaders at a G8 summit on Thursday and Friday in the town of Deauville on France's northern coast.
The G8 countries are mostly well-predisposed to Lagarde in theory, but many African leaders have been invited to Deauville too, which could provide President Nicolas Sarkozy with an opportunity to argue the case for his finance minister.
A statement to be released at the G8 summit was not set to offer any public endorsement of Lagarde, a diplomat said.
While there was no comment in Deauville from Barack Obama, Washington, via U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave its strongest public hint so far that it would be happy to see Lagarde run the IMF.
"As you know, the time frame for candidates to be put forward has a few more weeks to run, so officially the United States will be assessing and then eventually announcing its position," she told a news conference in Paris.
"Unofficially, let me say we welcome women who are well qualified and experienced to head major organisations such as the IMF," she said.
The only other declared candidate is Mexican central bank chief Agustin Carstens. While big emerging nations are demanding the job should no longer automatically go to a European they have not so far rallied behind Carstens or any other candidate.
One option floated by Brazilian Finance Minister on Wednesday was that whoever is next just finish Strauss-Kahn's uncompleted five-year term, which was to run until November 2012.
Additional reporting by G8 summit staff in Deauville and Rajesh Kumar Singh in New Delhi; Writing by Brian Love; Editing by Jon Boyle