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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