A Tale Of Three Pandemics: Tracing Mexico's Evolving Ties With China

Unlike the SARS and H1N1/09 outbreaks, which caused friction between the two countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has, if anything, improved Chinese-Mexican relations.

An 11-year-old Mexican boy displays his drawing in support of China's fight against the novel coronavirus.
Eduardo Tzili-Apango


MEXICO CITY — The coronavirus pandemic is shaking international relations and revealing a number of situations, problems and processes that may have been unnoticed before. Evolving relations between China and Mexico are a case in point.

When the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic appeared in China, in November 2002, the country had recently joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) and was perceived in Mexico as unwelcome competition, as both countries had decided to use exports as a springboard for their overall development strategies. Even without SARS, Mexico was concerned about the prospect of China competing for its markets, especially the United States.

And so, at one point Mexico actually saw SARS as an opportunity to gain ground on China, an opportunity, nevertheless, that in retrospect was never exploited. China was thus an economic threat, but not seen as endangering Mexico's health. Having said that, SARS did fan the flames of long-standing, anti-Chinese xenophobia in Mexico. In April 2003, authorities confined 38 Chinese trainers in the Otomí Ceremonial Center to prevent contagion, even though the people had health certificates.

Mexico actually saw SARS as an opportunity to gain ground on China.

The incident was part of a broader process of building up a negative image of China, which has been widely studied. Notably, the Chinese government was not deeply concerned and the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, visited Mexico in December 2003. It was the first such visit to Mexico in eight years, and produced a strategic association and three agreements signed in areas including health care cooperation.

Five years later, in January 2009, H1N1/09 (swine flu) appeared in the state of Veracruz before spreading fast across the world. China repeated Mexico's earlier response to SARS and confined approximately 100 Mexicans to prevent contagion, even they had no symptoms. But unlike China, when the shoe had been on the other foot, Mexico did make vocal objections. There were complaints from both the government and the press, and accusations that China hadn't been transparent about SARS.

There was diplomatic friction, in other words, and bilateral relations hit their lowest point in recent history. But it was also symptomatic of the Mexican government's "erratic" approach to relations with China, with alternating bouts of submission and confrontation. That's been the pattern over time, and proof that Mexico never really had a clear foreign policy toward the People's Republic.


Arrival of the fifth plane from China with equipment to combat the coronavirus in Mexico. — Photo: El Universal/ZUMA

China was careful, nevertheless, to try and smooth things over as quickly as possible. Keep in mind that the country's then vice president, Xi Jinping, visited Mexico just one month after the swine flu outbreak. Also, in that same period, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, when asked about Mexico's reaction to the confinement of its nationals, said that the measures were not directed at Mexican citizens per se and that relations remained friendly and collaborative.

Fast forward another decade or so, and we have yet another pandemic. In this case, at least from a Mexican perspective, the virus arrived at an "opportune" time: in the context, namely, of a U.S.-Chinese trade war. While the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has repeated the "erratic" foreign policy pattern of preceding presidencies, it is also showing signs of a rapprochement with China.

Recall that immediately after winning the Mexican presidency, López Obrador met personally with the Chinese ambassador and decorated him with the Order of the Aztec Eagle. The president also appointed a former Mexican ambassador to China to serve as deputy-foreign minister, and in the legislature, the lower house set up a China-Mexico Friendship Group.

The virus arrived at an "opportune" time: in the context, namely, of a U.S.-Chinese trade war.

This time around, there's been a careful effort to protect relations between the two countries. The López Obrador administration chose not to comment on the pandemic's origins — a highly sensitive issue for China — and strictly avoided any discourse that might discriminate against Chinese people or reflect on how the People's Republic handled the epidemic.

China, in turn, has highlighted Mexican solidarity in its initial efforts against the epidemic. And as part of its own "face mask diplomacy," Beijing sent tons of medical supplies to Mexico. There are no reports, furthermore, of either country confining the other's nationals.

In summary, Sino-Mexican ties seem, in this pandemic, to have moved away from the dynamics of the two earlier epidemics. In 2003, Mexico perceived an economic opportunity, which it then sensed was lost, while China moved closer to Mexico politically. In 2009, the Mexican government's positions alienated both sides, though relations eventually got back on track due in large part to Chinese overtures.


Plane from China with medical equipment for health personnel fighting coronavirus in Mexico. — Photo: El Universal/ZUMA

Today, Mexico has shown caution, if not submissiveness, toward China, which has in turn displayed a measure of its "soft power" through its palliative, face mask diplomacy. The submission might indicate the success of China's "soft power" measures, which have included a visit to China by members of Mexico's ruling party MORENA and promotional events for the "China brand" in Mexican state agencies. An example is the China Day held at the Economy Ministry, as well as Chinese cash injections to help keep PEMEX, the Mexican state oil firm, afloat.

Recent Chinese initiatives may be intended to outflank the revised North American free-trade pact's anti-Chinese clauses, and to enable it to participate in the current Mexican government's ambitious infrastructure projects (especially the Mayan Railway) that are ultimately in line with Beijing's global interests.

Either way, the relationship appears to be thriving for now. Still, Mexico needs to be careful: The absence of a clear, long-term policy toward China has caused problems in the past and remains a weakness.

*Tzili-Apango is a professor and researcher at the Autonomous Metropolitan University-Xochimilco and member of its Eurasia studies group.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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