Mexico: Fortress Besieged?

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The US’ trade strategy is benefiting Mexico. The goal of NAFTA 2.0 is to try to box Chinese corporates out of North America. China has seen that as a poison pill (毒丸 - noting US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ calling it that) of the deal. And Chinese corporates with a presence in the US are now scrambling to figure out how to overcome that pill (诚邀您参加《美墨加协定》:中国企业的机遇与挑战峰会系列活动). The perspective from China is summed up by the line from the classic Commentary to the Book of Songs by Master Han (韩诗外传): “The tree wants to be quiet but the wind does no stop” (树欲静而风不止). China says it wants calm trade relations while the US government continues its fusillade of tariffs.

In another literary reference, Mexico is seen as a “Fortress Besieged” (围城), in reference to Qian Zhongshu’s satiric novel, stuck in between China and the US. While Mexico is traditionally a competitor of China, as a manufacturing base for global consumers, the current Mexican government has looked to China as an alternative to a volatile US.

This all comes at a time when not just China but the world is looking to better understand the position of Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who swears into office in two weeks. This week his Foreign Minister-designee, Marcelo Ebrard, has been tempering fears that Mexico will take a hawkish stand towards China. Ebrard met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and said China is a key country in Mexico’s plans to pursue economic diversification. Ebrard highlights that he wants good relations with China to allow Mexico to export more goods, like the deals announced last week for plantains and sorghum.

Our recent trips to Mexico have confirmed this. The manager of a China-oriented business park tells us that he used to get one inquiry a month from Chinese companies looking to do business in Mexico. Ever since the US tariffs on Chinese goods kicked in, those inquiries have jumped to almost a dozen a month. “They come here and say they don’t want to be here,” he tells us. “But they say: ‘ we have to be,’” because of the tariffs.

And it’s not just Chinese corporates. Japanese and even German companies are now looking at Mexico to get around the new NAFTA agreement. 

Despite all this interest, foreign direct investment into Mexico for the third quarter fell 28%. Why? Because investors were rattled by AMLO’s anti-business campaign. If the new president wants to avoid making Mexico a fortress besieged in this economic environment, he’s going to have to keep investors — from China, Japan, and elsewhere — assuaged.

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