Mexico and China

Luis Rubio

After four decades of extraordinary transformation, no one can  doubt the enormous ambitions of China as a world power, now aided and abetted by the retreat launched by Trump, leaving it fertile ground for its political and strategic, as well as its economic, expansion. Napoleon thus understood it from 1817 when he declared from his “stay” on the island of Saint Helena: “China is a sleeping giant… Let her sleep, because when she wakes, she will move the world.” China has awoken and its presence worldwide makes itself felt both through the extraordinary logistic project it is building in Asia and Africa, as well as in its evident aspiration to recoup its importance as a world power. The question for Mexico is whether there is a viable space for interaction.

Mexico is localized in a geopolitical zone distant from that of China, which has conditioned much of the historical nature of the bilateral relationship. The paradox at present is that the attitude of the U.S. is generating a mutual incentive to explore common alternatives. The attraction is evident, but the complexity is no less: on the one hand, despite the huge transformation that the Asian nation has undergone, the economic distortions that characterize it are not insignificant and, in contrast with the complementary economic relation that Mexico has with Europe and the U.S., Mexico competes with China in innumerable sectors (whose actors allege that in China, conventional rules do not apply). On the other hand, the geopolitical circumstance is not simple, as demonstrated by the failed high-speed train project from Mexico City to Queretaro.

Nothing will change Mexico’s geography, but the political reality of the region obliges the diversification that has always been proposed but that has never been obtained (a similar situation, indeed, to the one typifying Canada). From this perspective, China constitutes, for Mexico, an example and a challenge, a problem and a solution, all at the same time. In spite of China’s own structural dilemmas, which are not easy to solve, that nation has become the world’s main growth engine and an imposing competitor in increasing numbers of sectors and activities.

In this context, it is not by chance that China and the potential relationship with that nation, unleashes passions: for some it is a country not conforming to any rule, while for others it represents a strategic alternative. Both of these can be true and would comprise one of the many contradictions with which it would be necessary to deal. China’s political system is closer in nature to that which distinguished Mexico throughout the XX century than the one Mexicans (supposedly) seek to create through democratic means; nonetheless, many admire China precisely because its government exerts an impacting capacity for ordaining structural changes and coercing the transformation of sectors, regions and activities. In one word, an eventual deepening of the relationship with China would necessitate a deep introspection within Mexico on values that, at least in everyday rhetoric, have become key, such as corruption, transparency and checks and balances, none of which feature a portion of China’s bill-of-fare. Within this context, any presumption of interaction would require very clear and precise internal definitions.*

My impression is that the passions the Chinese nation unleashes can be explained, above all by the lack of understanding of what China is and how it moves, a situation that is practically universal: a country controlled in the extreme, with authoritarian institutions and, while there are many informal information sources, its criterion in conducting its affairs, economic as well as political, is strategic and political. None of this is surprising, but it renders China a country difficult to know and to which, as a country, Mexicans have devoted very little attention.

China is an inexorable point of reference with which contact must be established, but the latter is inconceivable with such a strategic and centralized nation without a comparable vision, something unusual, not to say inexistent –as of today- in the Mexican context. Additionally, although the contact that would be established would be political (everything there is political), articulation will be, in the majority of cases, through private companies (at least on our side), which would obligate the Mexican government to spell out how it would act on encountering complex situations: i.e., when operational conditions were not fair or when their sources of competitiveness were politically determined. In a word, how will the Mexican side take the initiative and not leave all the driving to them. Few countries present such complexity.

What I have learned about China over the years, and have heard and read from diverse experts, is that we must be realistic to the extent possible regarding the relationship and keep a clear mind concerning its being a triangular relationship in which we do not have all of the chips because our geopolitical reality entails conditioning factors that cannot be overstepped. Much more importantly, with or without Trump, integration of industry across North America is taking place and nothing is going to modify that pattern, even though the rhythm could vary. Also, it is not impossible that, sooner or later, we will end concluding that dealing with the U.S., even with Trump, is child’s play in comparison with the Oriental dragon.

*COMEXI has just published a proposal to advance this process: