An old story. East meets West. In this case, it’s the Dragon of China, the “Middle Kingdom,” meeting the land of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent – Mexico. 

Each, in its own way, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” to paraphrase Winston Churchill. But, he added (then, speaking of Russia), perhaps there is a key: “that key is national interest.” Each great country, China and Mexico, must attend to their own national interest, in their own ways.

Both countries find their national interests to include closer ties. Formal ties began long ago, 1573, when the first galleon loaded with Chinese goods from the Philippines entered Mexico. Current diplomatic ties were renewed in 1972. Both countries are members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative, the G-20 and the UN. “Spats” have marred relations (Mexico’s pique at Chinese “dumping” into the U.S. market, and later conflicts over the “swine flu.”) But after 2016, both countries edged closer together, seeming to have a common cause in resisting Trump’s rhetoric, his erratic announcements and threats about tariffs and trade.

Tourism, often a “friendship industry,” doesn’t help too much: only 63,000 Chinese came to Mexico in 2014, fewer Mexicans—35,000—to China, perhaps due to distance and price. Yet, by 2018, China had become Mexico’s fourth largest export market and its second largest import partner. Napoleon’s prescient prediction is coming true: “China is a sleeping giant . . . when she wakes, she will move the world” (Luis Rubio, “On Mexico-China Relations,” The Americas and China, 27 Sep 18). What type of player is emerging? The irony is that “China’s political system is closer to that of Mexico’s in the early 20th Century,” than to the Mexico of today, intent on expanding democracy (Rubio, President of COMAX, Mexican Council of Foreign Relations).

Despite those differences (or because of them?) many, inside and outside China, advise closer relations, for the good of both (A. C. Hsiang, “Three Reasons Why it’s Time for Mexico to Pivot to China,” 5 Jul 18, Mexico News Daily). Aside from the shared threat from Trump, Mexico has been “over-exposed” to the U.S. market and must diversify. Indeed, in 2017, the billionaire, Carlos Slim Helú, established a joint venture with China’s JAL Motors, one of their three main motor companies with existing Mexican ties. The current president, Andrés Manuél López Obrador (AMLO), could revitalize the plan for a rail corridor across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. It is only a short 200 kilometers from Pacific to Atlantic Ocean, bypassing the more expensive Panama Canal. So, “East” could soon penetrate southwestern Mexico—and head past U.S. waters, on to Europe. 

Other experts agree, Mexico, as well as China, would benefit from “positive returns from such long-term infrastructure projects” (Gerardo Esquivel, Harvard-trained Mexican economist and advisor to AMLO). Jorge Castañeda, former Foreign Secretary, says such attempts at joining the “new silk road” would be, for Mexico, an expression of economic “machismo.” But the government must assuage Chinese fears of possible disruptive delays or corruption in Mexico. (Hsiang, Director of the Center for Latin American Economics, of Chiblee University, Taiwan). 

Others add a word of caution, for both countries. “China was disappointed in the failure of the implementation of a high speed train from Mexico City to Queretero,” and expects greater attention to details of any new plans (Francois de la Chevalarie, “China-Mexican Relations,” 15 Jun 18, China Daily). The contrast of planning and execution in each country is amazing. For example, the shipping terminal of Rizhao, Shandong province, China, is growing fast. Its shipping terminal is the “Eastern bridgehead of the new Euro-Asia continental bridge“(Bill McKibben,“Can China Go Green?” National Geographic, June 2011). 

No other country is investing so heavily as China in clean energy. Yet, it has its own problems: by the same token,“no other country burns as much coal to fuel its economy” (McKibben). Bigger (and faster) are not always better. Scientists are worried. Rizhao’s growth has helped push China past the U.S. in the past decade to become the world’s largest source of global warming gases. Yet, from every building spout arrays of solar collectors. Both policies—coal and environmental experimentation—though seemingly contradictory, are part of contemporary China.

China is trying to wean itself from fossil fuels (see how subversive they are?). The bullet train at Shanghai’s Hongquiao Railway Station boasts a 220-mph capacity; the country will soon have over 8,000 miles of speed track, more than the rest of the world combined. So, both “change and CO2 are in the air,” simultaneously. “Two-thirds of China’s vast land is ideal for solar power,” yet Greenpeace notes China’s toxic coal ash is its “largest source of solid industrial waste and is often dispersed into the environment.” 

For China, is this seemingly contradictory dualism a form of political cognitive dissonance? It is awkward, but it could work. But China, for Mexico, is both a model and a warning. “It takes two to tango” and each country has its own unique style of economic dancing. East is, indeed, meeting West, with this encounter between China and its new partner, Mexico. Each must work things out on this international chessboard, according to their own national interest, conducted by themselves, without interference from the US. 

We need China and Mexico. We can only wish them both well—one country, well over a billion and one-third people, the other, smaller, but hungry for growth and improvement – and our neighbor. We are all tied together in a global system in which the rise or fall of one major player affects the rest. We need to study both countries more seriously and endeavor to understand them in the most positive ways possible.