Mexico’s Strategy for Dealing With Trump: Warn Him About China

Mexico’s Strategy for Dealing With Trump: Warn Him About China

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s new government has a strategy for dealing with President Trump.

Don’t anger him. Don’t cave in to him. Try to get him to join an ambitious investment plan to stem migration by creating jobs in Central America.

And if Mr. Trump is not convinced, remind him that there’s another player in the region willing to step into the vacuum left by the United States and become a powerful presence in its back yard: China.

That, in a nut shell, is the Mexican government’s plan to defuse the standoff over the thousands of migrants amassed at its border with the United States, hoping to make it across.

Mexico’s approach was officially rolled out last week, when Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the country’s new president, introduced what he called a “Marshall Plan” to address the root causes of Central American migration: a $30 billion initiative to redevelop the region and welcome migrants into Mexico with visas, health care and employment.

The proposal, which Mexican officials have likened to the plan to rebuild postwar Europe, is a break with Mr. López Obrador’s predecessor, who considered allowing people seeking asylum in the United States to remain in Mexico, as Mr. Trump demanded.

And Mexico’s new plan is, in many respects, the opposite of Mr. Trump’s vow to crack down on migration, which includes building a wall, deploying the military and cutting aid to Central America.

Mexican officials say they are not going to force a confrontation with Mr. Trump by demanding that he take the migrants onto American soil; that would only anger the American president, and he would not do it anyway, they say.

But at the same time, they say they are not going to strike a deal with the United States to keep asylum seekers on the Mexican side of the border. That would allow Mr. Trump to claim a victory Mexican officials are not willing to give him.

Instead, they want to change the focus of the conversation to developing the economy of Central America, creating jobs there so people don’t have to stream north in the first place.

And how does Mr. López Obrador’s new government hope to convince Mr. Trump that he should care about investing in Central America?

Enter China, or at least the perceived threat to the United States posed by its growing engagement in the region.

While it is unclear whether Chinese interests would include supporting a plan to curb migration out of Central America, in recent years the country has increased its presence there, funding infrastructure projects, tightening ties with governments and even convincing a handful of Central American nations to switch their diplomatic recognition of Taiwan to China — a sticking point with the Americans.

By privately raising the prospect of China assisting in the new regional development plan, Mexico is trying to leverage the region’s changing reality in its favor, given that it cannot take cooperation with the United States for granted.

“For a long time there has been this competition within Latin America for influence, where China is willing to invest billions in infrastructure and energy that the United States simply isn’t,” said Duncan Wood, the director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center.

The approach is also a reflection of the distinct personalities of Mr. López Obrador and Mr. Trump: Both are mavericks — albeit on opposite sides of the political spectrum — and both are willing to break with long-established conventions.

“Partly because of Trump and partly because of Andrés Manuel, there is an opening there,” Mr. Wood said.

Unlike his predecessor, Mr. López Obrador is willing to chart an independent course in his response to the Trump administration — partly because of Mr. Trump’s hard line on migration and partly out of a conviction that the only way to tackle the issue is to go after its root causes.

And to do that, Mexico will look for help wherever it can find it, including in China, which has already expressed an interest in Mr. López Obrador’s plan to lay hundreds of miles of track for a tourist train in the Yucatán Peninsula — a project widely opposed by environmental advocates.

Of course, that does not mean Mexico will make a sharp turn to China, given its longstanding relationship with the United States. Nor does floating the idea that China may participate make Mexico’s costly proposal any more plausible.

“The money is just not there,” said Mark Feierstein, the former senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. He noted that the United States was spending more than $650 million a year in Central America’s Northern Triangle, which is composed of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

But that may be beside the point.

“If nothing else, it is a good bargaining chip,” said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, of the idea that China could increase its investment in the region. “Both sides are laying down their frameworks and their points of view as to how they should they proceed.”

The idea that China could increase its influence in Mexico emerged even before Mr. López Obrador came into office.

“I heard from senior Mexican officials during the transition that if the United States is not going to treat Mexico with respect, don’t be surprised if you see a Chinese submarine in a Mexican port,” said Juan Gonzalez, who was an adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden on Central America.

“I think it was hyperbolic,” he said of the outgoing officials’ warning before adding, “I think Mexico sees increased political risk coming from the political process in the United States and they are diversifying their interests.”

Since taking office on the first of this month, Mr. López Obrador has done nothing if not shake up the establishment.

He has announced the cancellation of the construction of a new airport, a multibillion-dollar project that was well underway, and temporarily suspended new auctions for oil exploration in Mexico. He has also cut salaries for government employees and proposed a measure to dismantle a much-vaunted education overhaul.

In his first few weeks in office, as on the campaign trail, Mr. López Obrador has focused on domestic issues — an inward-looking vision that differs from recent Mexican presidents who saw the global stage as the nation’s future.

But the migrant crisis forced its way to the top of the agenda, proving a frustrating first test for Mr. López Obrador.

The arrival of thousands of migrants traveling in caravans from Honduras and other countries in Central America raised the profile of an existing problem, raising the stakes and forcing Mr. López Obrador to decide how to manage it just days after taking office.

For decades, Mexico kept its head down as hundreds of thousands of migrants — many of them Mexican — made their way into the United States. But in recent years, the nation’s status as a transit country has changed.

Mexico is becoming a destination, not just a portal to the United States. Every year, more people apply for asylum in Mexico, and many more choose to stay and seek work. A bottleneck in the United States has meant that thousands of migrants are stuck waiting months at the border for their initial asylum interview.

In 2014, at the urging of the Obama administration, the Mexican government adopted a tough policing strategy along its southern border with Guatemala that essentially amounted to detention and deportation. But that also failed to curtail the flow of migrants.

Today, with some 10,000 migrants having entered Mexico in caravans that focused global media attention on their plight, mass roundups and deportations are not an option, officials say. Nor is striking a deal with the Trump administration to host the migrants indefinitely.

And so the government of Mr. López Obrador is trying to fold them into Mexican society — and raise money to invest in projects that would create employment and prosperity in the region.

“It’s not enough just to point out that the causes of migration have to be dealt with,” said Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign secretary, adding that Mexico wants to counter the idea “that the best way to confront migration is through exclusion and control.”

This is, in part, a recognition that Mexico forms a part of a busy migration corridor and that, with or without help from the United States, it has to deal with the issue.

“Finally, the issue of the Northern Triangle and migration is seen as a regional issue,” said Rafael Fernández de Castro, the director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego, and a former Mexican presidential adviser. “There is a window of opportunity: The knowledge and awareness have never been as clear as they are now.”

Mr. López Obrador is also signaling an interest in playing a broader leadership role in the region, as Mexico did during the 1970s and 1980s.

“Mexico wants to take back leadership in the region,” said Rodolfo Cruz Piñeiro, director of the department for population studies at the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana. “Mexico is telling the U.S.: ‘I can control this region for you, but I need your economic help.’”

“What will the U.S. ask? That’s the great unknown,” he added.

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