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

That, in a nutshell, is the Mexican government’s plan to defuse the standoff over the thousands of migrants amassed at the US border, 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.

The proposal, which Mexican officials have likened to the plan to rebuild postwar Europe, is a break with López Obrador’s predecessor.

And Mexico’s new plan is, in many respects, the opposite of 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 Trump by demanding that he take the migrants; that would only anger the 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 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 do not have to stream north in the first place.


And how does López Obrador’s government hope to convince Trump 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 United States.

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, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center.

The approach is also a reflection of the distinct personalities of López Obrador and 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,” Wood said.

López Obrador is willing to chart an independent course in his response to the Trump administration — partly because of 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 López Obrador’s plan to lay hundreds of miles of track for a tourist train in the Yucatán Peninsula.

“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 raise its investment in the region. “Both sides are laying down their frameworks and their points of view as to how they should they proceed.”