At a Crossroads with Mexico

At a Crossroads with Mexico

pena nieto with obama

Mr. Peña Nieto and Mr. Obama. Image from Getty Images.

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The United States is at a crossroads in its relationship with Mexico. Congress is set to decide on the issue of immigration reform now that the recess is over. New developments in the war on drugs have prompted questions about how to best cooperate with Mexico. President Peña Nieto, still in his first year of governance, has adopted an ambitious plan for reform that provides the United States an opportunity to support its southern neighbor and thereby solidify relations. At the same time, however, China is busy reinventing its own relationship with Mexico, complicating the prospects for improved U.S.-Mexican relations. This means that the United States must act quickly in order to maintain its influence in Mexico and protect its national security interests.

The most visible, and perhaps the most important, area of interest for the United States and Mexico is the immigration question. Mr. Peña Nieto favors comprehensive U.S. immigration reform provided that the border is not militarized. However, despite the U.S. Senate’s support for comprehensive reform, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is likely to demand stronger border enforcement. Even the Senate reform package had to guarantee a doubling of border patrol agents, 700 additional miles of fencing, and more drones in order to gain Republican support. Immigration policy will affect both official U.S.-Mexican relations and the Mexican public’s attitude toward the United States. Any significant damage to these relationships could spill over into cooperation on security issues (including the drug war) and trade initiatives. It could also open the door to increased Chinese influence in Mexico, a disconcerting prospect for a variety of reasons, which will be discussed below.

New developments in the drug war also signal a crossroads in U.S.-Mexican relations. The Mexican government made inroads this summer by capturing a leader of the Gulf Cartel and the head of the Zetas. However, a Mexican judge released another drug boss, Rafael Caro Quintero, who had been incarcerated 28 years for killing an American federal agent. These events have prompted observers to note that it seems Mr. Peña Nieto is still in the process of defining his drug war strategy, meaning this aspect of the U.S.-Mexican relationship is also undefined. This gives the United States a fresh opportunity to help steer the direction of the drug war and reset its collaborative efforts with Mexican authorities.

Mr. Peña Nieto has also unveiled new plans for domestic reform, which focus primarily on improving conditions like violence, poverty, and a struggling educational system. These issues are important to Mexicans, and Mr. Peña Nieto’s plan provides the United States another opportunity to support its southern neighbor and thereby solidify relations. The Mérida Initiative has addressed at least some of Mexico’s underlying institutional weaknesses (like community building and the rule of law), but is still primarily a security agreement. Increased institutional assistance from the United States would support Mr. Peña Nieto’s emphasis on broad-based reform and engender a more positive relationship with Mexico’s leader, whose term does not end until 2018.

pena nieto with xi

Mr. Xi and Mr. Peña Nieto. Image from Foreign Policy.

This relationship with Mr. Peña Nieto will be essential if the United States is to maintain a strong influence in Mexico. China is looking to reinvent its relationship with Mexico, posing a threat to U.S. predominance there. Only a month after Mr. Peña Nieto met with President Obama earlier this year to discuss U.S.-Mexican relations, President Xi Jinping of China visited Mexico.  As one analyst notes, “Peña Nieto’s engagement with the Chinese president, both at [an] April summit in Boao, China, and [in June] in Mexico City, allow him to differentiate himself from his pro-U.S. predecessor, Felipe Calderón.” China’s increasing focus on Latin America generally continues to facilitate this divergence. Chinese overtures to Mexico in particular grow louder and louder—it recently extended a $1 billion credit line to PEMEX, Mexico’s premier state-owned oil producer. Ironically, as the Obama administration has concentrated on its “pivot to Asia,” China has been busy forging economic ties with Latin America. The United States risks losing influence in Mexico as China makes its bid to win over the new Mexican administration. All of these conditions point to a crossroads in U.S.-Mexican relations.

China is unlikely to curtail its outreach to Mexico any time soon. In fact, recent history suggests that Sino-Mexican economic ties will only grow stronger. It is in China’s interest to compete with the United States for economic influence in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. A robust economic relationship with one of the United States’ major trading partners would give China valuable leverage in the American economy, in itself a national security concern. China would also gain influence over regional trade agreements among the United States, Mexico, and Latin America. Over time, increased Sino-Mexican relations may well provide the basis for security and military agreements between China and Mexico. As China invests more heavily in the Mexican and Latin American economies, it will most likely look to extend its military presence there. This would be a serious infringement on the United States’ traditional position of strength in the Western Hemisphere. If the United States does not improve relations with Mexico through favorable immigration policies and increased support for President Peña Nieto’s reforms, it risks alienating Mexico’s government and citizenry, which would most likely lead Mexico to welcome further Chinese involvement and physical presence in the region. It should come as no surprise if China provides direct assistance for Mr. Peña Nieto’s reforms in order to strengthen its influence in Mexico.

All of these conditions point to a serious crossroads in U.S.-Mexican relations and underscore the need for quick action to bolster those relations. Congress should consider the effects of potential immigration reform on both U.S.-Mexican relations and Sino-Mexican relations. While Congress does not and arguably should not rely on the Mexican government for guidance in policymaking, it should take into account the far-reaching implications of immigration reform, especially policies involving border militarization. The United States should also develop a plan to support Mr. Peña Nieto’s domestic reforms, financially or otherwise. This will engender a more positive relationship between the two countries and discourage Mexico from depending on China for support. Finally, the United States should work to keep its regional trade initiatives free from Chinese influence, despite potential support from Latin American countries for Chinese involvement. Growing its own influence in Mexico and limiting China’s is essential to the United States and its national security interests.

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