By Bernd Debusmann Jr
Mexico has begun exploring its options in dealing with Donald Trump. And it has some cards up its sleeve.
The new U.S. president has vowed to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it, to deport hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and to renegotiate the NAFTA free trade agreement. Just last week he threatened to send the U.S military south of the border to fight “bad hombres.”
Sure, Mexico could lose a great deal if relations with its largest trading partner worsened. But it has cards to play to gain leverage against what many Mexicans now view as an American administration that is displaying unprecedented hostility to its southern neighbor.
On trade, Mexico has the potential to pivot to other export markets — for example China, which along with Mexico was a regular punching bag during Trump’s electoral campaign. Currently, about 80 percent of Mexican exports head north to the United States. Mexico is the third largest trade partner of the United States, after Canada and China.
“The U.S. trade tensions with Mexico are putting the Mexican government on overdrive,” Sean Miner, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, told CNBC television. “Recently, China and Mexico have become closer. Clearly, this is a consequence of the rising tensions.”
There is ample evidence of such a shift. A month after Trump was elected, Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi met with then Mexican Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu. The Mexican Foreign Ministry said the talks aimed to improve trade and investment ties and improve flight connections.
Other countries have also begun pushing for closer trade ties with Mexico. On February 7, Argentine President Mauricio Macri said that Mercosur, South America’s regional trade bloc, would focus on strengthening its relations with Mexico after Trump abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that includes 12 Pacific Rim countries.
Mexico is the first line of defense against migrants headed north.
To boost its negotiating position in any trade talks, Mexico could use its own immigration policies as leverage.
Over the last several years of Barack Obama’s administration, Mexico, with U.S. backing, strengthened enforcement efforts to stop and intercept migrants who come from Central America headed to the United States.
Clearly Mexico has an important role to play in stopping the flow. A reluctance by Mexico to cooperate with the United States would complicate America’s own enforcement efforts at the Mexican border.
But the U.S.-Mexico border is not the only sensitive frontier. According to a 2015 report from Mexico’s National Migration Institute obtained by Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, as many as 400,000 migrants enter Mexico from the south every year, almost all bound for the United States.
Given the net decline in the number of Mexicans crossing into the United States, the figure represents a significant proportion of the total number of immigrants headed north.
So flows of migrants into the United States depend also on Mexico’s surveillance of its own southern border — which the New York Times recently called “a first line of defense against both migrants headed to the United States and terrorist threats.”
A most surprising example of national unity
Mexico has an important role to play if Trump hopes to deal with “bad hombres” — by which the U.S. leader presumably means Mexico’s organized criminal organizations.
Some speculate that worsening relations might curtail U.S.-Mexican cooperation in the fight against drug traffickers. It’s anyone’s guess whether Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman — who was extradited to the United States one day before Trump was inaugurated — would be sent north under the new U.S. administration.
Or Mexico could stop providing intelligence to the United States. While that seems unlikely to happen, the option is there.
President Enrique Pena Nieto is deeply unpopular and faces the lowest approval ratings of any Mexican leader in decades. He unleashed a storm of criticism when he invited Trump to Mexico during the U.S. presidential campaign after the billionaire had pledged to build a “big, beautiful” wall between the two countries.
Adopting a confrontational stance towards Trump might boost Pena Nieto’s ratings if he managed to convince Mexicans to rally around him.
“This is the most surprising example of national unity I’ve seen in my life,” Mexican billionaire business magnate Carlos Slim said last month. “We have to back the president of Mexico so he can defend our national interests.”
Bernd Debusmann Jr. is chief reporter for the Khaleej Times newspaper in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Previously he worked as a producer on the Reuters Latin American TV desk in Washington, as a Reuters text reporter in New York and later in his native Mexico, first for Reuters TV and then as a freelance journalist.