By Gernot Heller and Andrea Shalal
BERLIN (Reuters) - German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel called for a resumption of long-stalled efforts to negotiate a global free trade accord on Saturday, warning that a proliferation of bilateral trade deals could lead to varying standards and rules.
"The best thing would be an agreement under the auspices of the World Trade Organization (WTO)," Gabriel said during a business conference in Hong Kong.
"We should restart discussions in the WTO even as we are negotiating comprehensive bilateral agreements," he said, before heading back to Germany.
In the absence of a global trade agreement, Gabriel said it was important that bilateral trade deals also include social, climate and consumer standards, beyond simply reducing tariffs.
Gabriel welcomed an offer made by China during his visit to begin intensive discussions with Germany and the European Union about its steel exports to Europe.
"Of course we will accept the Chinese offer and negotiate at all levels to reach a solution," he told the Funke media group.
"But it's too soon to talk about an 'all-clear' signal since this is a really big dispute. We must protect our steelworkers from unfair competition and subsidized steel exports from China that could crowd out the competitive and ecologically sound European steel industry."
The European Union last month imposed provisional import duties on two types of Chinese steel, the latest in a series of trade defenses set up to curb subsidized steel exports that EU officials say have resulted in job losses and plant closures.
The German minister said resistance to free trade agreements such as the one signed last week by the European Union and Canada was largely due to insufficient communication by governments about the benefits of such accords and the failure to include citizens and societal groups.
Activists in the Netherlands have gathered almost two thirds of the signatures needed to lay the groundwork for a referendum on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), which they say overly favors the interests of multinational companies.
A referendum defeat would throw up a further obstacle to the ratification of CETA, which was almost scuttled last month by a regional assembly in neighboring Belgium.
(Writing by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Alexander Smith)