President Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador will meet in San Francisco Friday as both countries dive into high-stakes presidential elections in 2024.
The two leaders are meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, where Biden has already met jointly with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and held a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
López Obrador held his own bilateral talks with Xi, inviting the Chinese premier to visit Mexico and touting Chinese investments in his country.
The Mexican president also met with Kishida and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with whom he discussed migration and trade.
Mexico, Canada, China and Japan are the United States’ top four trading partners, in that order, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
López Obrador’s visit with Xi went beyond investment and trade talks – it signaled Mexican openness to forming strategic partnerships with China, formerly seen as a commercial rival regarding access to the U.S. market.
López Obrador’s son, seen as a close ally of Claudia Sheinbaum – the president’s chosen successor who in September won his party’s nomination for 2024 – turned to X to praise the Xi-AMLO meeting.
“This encounter was not only diplomacy, it’s a firm step toward significant collaboration between both countries,” wrote José Ramón López Beltrán.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, on only his seventh international trip since taking office in 2018, will look to parlay his diplomatic rounds into a stronger negotiating position with Biden.
The Mexican president, averse to criticism, has toed a careful line in managing the historically asymmetric U.S.-Mexico relationship, whether dealing with Biden or former President Trump.
But Biden and López Obrador will have to discuss touchy issues that could affect elections on either side of the border.
Migration and the fentanyl trade will be at the top of the agenda, likely obfuscating the huge bilateral licit trade relationship, a topic that’s not at the center of López Obrador’s own domestic agenda.
López Obrador, who had a close relationship with Trump and has maintained a cordial entente with Biden, is facing some political pressure at home as Republican presidential candidates have embraced the rhetoric of unilateral military action in Mexico to combat the fentanyl trade.
But the political onus is on Biden, who is fighting for reelection.
The border and migration are seen as one of Biden’s top political liabilities, and most border security experts agree there is little his administration can do to stem the flow of migrants from Latin America.
Yet López Obrador played a key role in implementing Trump’s crackdown on migration, under threat of U.S. punitive tariffs.
That tool is unavailable to Biden both because reduced trade with Mexico could negatively impact the fight against inflation, and because such a threat could have other diplomatic and commercial consequences that were largely overlooked by Trump.
But the illicit trade in drugs – particularly fentanyl – is an issue where both countries theoretically align.
Though López Obrador has denied that fentanyl is produced in Mexico, a majority of the fentanyl illicitly traded in the United States comes across the border.
Most chemical precursors to synthesize fentanyl are believed to come from China – López Obrador’s argument about the origin of fentanyl rests on the semantic difference of whether production means synthesizing the precursors, or converting the precursors into a street drug.
Yet China’s role in the fentanyl trade played a key role on the sidelines of the APEC summit, as both North American presidents had the issue on their agenda to discuss with Xi.
The Biden administration on Thursday lifted sanctions on the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s Institute of Forensic Science in an effort to sway Xi to crack down on fentanyl precursor exports to Mexico and the United States.
Biden and López Obrador are due to meet – along with Trudeau – at least one more time before López Obrador’s term ends in September, at the North American Leader’s Summit tentatively scheduled to take place in Canada next year.
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