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Gauging the Mexican view of US-China rivalry

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An employee writes information about an elderly waiting for receive the China's Sinovac Biotech vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) during the mass vaccination program for the elderly people in Mexico City, Mexico, 25 March 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Edgard Garrido).

In Brief

As US public opinion of China drops to historic lows, China has an opportunity to enhance relations and shape public perceptions through America’s neighbour Mexico. But is the Mexican public interested?


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China–Mexico relations have improved over the last five years despite US President Donald Trump’s victory on a platform of outward hostility towards Mexico and China. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) prioritised closer relations with China after being elected in 2018, with Mexican legislators meeting with Chinese officials to improve diplomatic ties.

China responded by granting Mexico aid to combat COVID-19 and providing access to China’s Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine. The AMLO administration also expressed interest in attracting economic investment from China despite its rocky history with Chinese investment. But Mexico must tread carefully when it comes to economic engagement, as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade deal — which replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — allows the United States to leave the trade deal if Mexico establishes a similar deal with a non-market economy, such as China.

Despite interest among Chinese and Mexican officials in deepening relations, the Mexican public’s opinion of China continues to fluctuate. In the mid-2000s, Mexican views towards China’s economic influence switched from indifference to enthusiastic support to opposition. In 2014, 44 per cent of Mexicans said it would be positive for China’s economy to become equal to the United States. By 2016, this number had dropped to 36 per cent.

Indeed, Mexico was the last member state to accept China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation due to concerns about unfair economic competition. Yet Mexicans did not fear the rise of China as a world power, with public opinion limited to economic factors outside the scope of human rights and democracy. A 2019 Pew Research survey found that roughly half of Mexicans held a favourable view towards China, with 64 per cent believing the growing Chinese economy would help Mexico.

To determine the current views held by the Mexican public, the authors recently conducted a survey asking respondents to rate their feelings towards China on a scale of 1 to 10. The Mexican public’s favourable opinion towards China was confirmed, with China scoring an 8 or above among 57.92 per cent of respondents. Washington similarly fared well after 66.4 per cent scored the United States as an 8 or higher. In contrast, only 19.04 per cent of US respondents offered a similar evaluation of China.

Rather than pulling the public in opposite directions, Mexican views towards the United States and China are positively correlated. This is despite many academics arguing that the Trump administration’s ‘Make America Great Again’ policies had undermined US relations with Latin America and made China look comparatively better.

The data also conflicts with Pew Research across 17 advanced economies in June 2021 that found larger gaps in favourability towards the United States and China, with only Singaporeans favouring the latter. Mexico’s status as a developing economy might imply that the public sees the United States and China in terms of their economic potential rather than their strategic ambitions or domestic policies.

The results also suggest that the Mexican public distinguishes between China as a country and the views held by the Chinese government, just as they do for the United States. For example, the Mexican public remains generally positive about the United States, but deeper evaluations reveal that 84 per cent of Mexicans distrust the United States and 57 per cent view it with contempt — ostensibly due to harsh US immigration policy.

Still, China has succeeded in expanding its influence in the Western hemisphere without Mexico, a country in which Chinese investment has stalled over the last two decades. And outside a few Mexican research institutions such as Cechimex, Mexico seems to lack the public, private and academic institutions to fully engage with China.

In this context, Washington may wish to stymie China’s expanded diplomatic and economic engagement with Mexico by putting pressure on the AMLO administration. But such pressure is unlikely to succeed if it fails to consider the generally positive views of the Mexican public toward China and the unpopularity of specific US policies. China’s charm offensive has been well received — especially in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis — and evidence suggests that China will continue helping Mexico beyond the public health sector.

Although public health cooperation between the two countries is unlikely to spill over into significant Chinese investment in Mexico, Washington should prepare for a future in which US–Mexico tensions provide greater opportunity for Chinese influence in its southern neighbour.

Timothy S Rich is Associate Professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL).

Ian Milden is a recent graduate of the Public Administration program at Western Kentucky University.

Madelynn Einhorn is a research student at Western Kentucky University.

Olivia Blackmon is a research student at Western Kentucky University.

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