|Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto with China's President|
Xi Jinping, September 2017.
There is a looming menace from Mexico, but it is none of the ones identified by Trump. The threat is not one of drug dealers, rapists, and murderers flooding across our borders. It is not MS 13. It is not jobs lost to Mexican workers or Mexican factories or Mexican steel.
They are flyspecks compared with the real danger that Trump is creating by his relentless insults, as well as his threats to NAFTA, his proposed tariffs, his cancelling of DACA, and his insistence that Mexico pay for a border wall. And to add insult to injury, he has just announced his plan to send Jared Kushner (who just lost his White House security clearance) to Mexico tomorrow to meet with President Enrique Peña Nieto.
The real menace is the strategic threat to our security that an emboldened China may pose, using an alienated Mexico as its base.
China has recently, sweepingly, broadened its Latin American ties. And just as it has gotten stronger on the world stage and filled some of the vacuum created by Trump’s unilateralism, it has not, as the US hoped, gotten more democratic. On the contrary, it has tightened authoritarian control, flexing new muscle against foreign enterprises on its soil, and forcing western news outlets to limit what Chinese citizens can see. Most strikingly, on February 25, China's Premier Xi Jinping arrogated the power to rule for life by abolishing the two-term limit that had been the law. The National People’s Congress is expected to rubber stamp his decision this week.
Does China as a major force in Mexico sound unlikely? To be sure, it will not happen fast. But a look at the history of aggression from the south, and of China’s recent moves, shows that it is a geopolitical threat of such potential magnitude that we should be vigorously working to counter it now.
“Bad Uncle Sam”
But Trump is doing the opposite, and thereby encouraging Mexico to turn away from the United States, however reluctantly. His insistence that Mexico pay for the wall, for instance, has caused Peña Nieto to cancel two trips to the United States, most recently last month.
And on March 1, career diplomat Roberta Jacobson, our highly respected ambassador to Mexico, announced she would quit in May. As Trump has not even proposed a candidate for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, her departure leaves us particularly depleted in Latin American diplomacy on the highest levels.
To be sure, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has recently made a five-country tour of Latin America to try to placate leaders there, but with limited success. “This is a way for Tillerson to say, ‘We’re elevating our voice,’” said Rafael Fernández de Castro, the director of the Center for US-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego. But, “this is the ‘bad Uncle Sam’ of the past,” he added. “The horrendous insults to Mexicans, to every single Latin American immigrant, are there. They cannot have it both ways.”
The Trump Shock and Mexican Response
Reportedly much of retiring Ambassador Jacobson’s time has had to be spent smoothing ruffled feathers rather than accomplishing substantive gains in Mexico.
“With his tweets Trump has torn up 20 years of good relations,” said a Mexican friend as we drank afternoon tea in her kitchen a year ago. “It is as if your gentle father suddenly slapped you across the face for no reason. You don’t leave the family but you are certainly wary, and waiting to see what happens next.”
What has happened since is, if anything, worse. Last week I checked in with Warren Hardy, an American who became a Mexican citizen in 1990. Beginners at his Spanish language school in San Miguel de Allende are treated to an hour-long history lesson designed to impress on them that Mexicans are inordinately sensitive to being insulted. Mexicans, he explains, have great pride in their indigenous cultures on the one hand, but have been brutally treated successively by the Aztecs, Spanish and most recently the US on the other. The result is that “the core value of the Mexican people is respect. Mexicans demand respect from each other and particularly from foreigners. What Mr. Trump has done is strike a blow at the heart of our relationship by calling Mexicans rapists and criminals."
Small wonder that Mexico’s leaders are looking for new partners. When Trump renewed his threat to scrap NAFTA late last August, slamming Mexico in the process, the very next week Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto travelled to China to discuss increased trade. While there, he participated with 800 business leaders in a summit of the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), which Mexico might join to cooperate on investment, trade, finance, and the sea. And the day after that Peña Nieto visited the Alibaba Group, hoping to get more Mexican products onto this China-based leading e-commerce platform.
Could increased trade with China morph into Mexicans being receptive to becoming a base for aggression against the United States? Consider events a century ago.
The Zimmermann Telegram
In January 1917, Germany’s Foreign Office proposed to the Mexican government that, if the US entered World War I against Germany, the Mexicans should fight on the German side, thus making it a two-front war for the US. In return, Germany would recover Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico for Mexico.
The famous Zimmermann Telegram that conveyed this offer was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence, which shared it with America in March of 1917. It backfired mightily on the Germans. So enraged was the American public that President Wilson went before Congress and swiftly won a declaration of war against Germany on April 6, 1917.
As it happened, Mexico turned Germany down, not believing that it could deliver either financially or militarily on its promise, or that Mexico could control the large English-speaking territories it might have re-acquired. But there was fertile ground among Mexicans to accept an offer that promised revenge on the United States, just as there is today. It was not just because the United States had seized almost half of Mexico in the Nineteenth Century. The United States had invaded Mexico in 1914 to protect US business interests during the Mexican revolution, and again in 1916-17 in a vain attempt to punish Pancho Villa for killing Americans in New Mexico.
While this German effort fizzled, 45 years later, a military threat from the south, from Cuba, became very real indeed.
In my next post, following shortly, we examine that threat, how much worse it would be if it were repeated today, and just how China is moving into Latin America.
This is Post 1 of 2. The second post is here: