If we continue to escalate tensions with Mexico, America will lose a valuable trading partner and friend, and the Western hemisphere will be China's for the winning. This month, Xi Jinping monumentally became the first Chinese president to visit the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — a clear sign that China is moving to take the reins of global leadership from the United States as our worldwide relationships falter.
In a speech, Mr. Xi defended free and global trade, stating that "No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war." That is not entirely true. In a trade war between Mexico and the United States, which President Trump seems keen on initiating as a part of his plan to construct the border wall, the average American citizen will certainly lose. And China will emerge as the winner, as it has in other parts of the world where the United States has failed to properly exert its influence.
In many parts of Africa, both war-torn and peaceful, for example, China has slowly and quietly implemented a campaign of neocolonial investments in infrastructure and resources. From a $475 million light-rail in Ethiopia to continent-wide energy loans worth $17.6 billion from 2000 to 2014, China has invested heavily in Africa — especially in countries that happen to be resource-rich in particularly important commodities, such as oil and the so-called "rare-earth elements" that have become key components of consumer electronics. They're used in everything from mobile devices and cars to high-tech weaponry, and as demand for them grows, China stands to benefit from its long-cultivated relationships on a continent that America has largely forgotten. The market for these rare materials, deemed essential to U.S. national security, will be squeezed, and China will have the advantage.
In Latin America, China may take its cue from another power beginning to exert its influence in the region. Russia, still an adversary of the United States, recently began moving back into the Western Hemisphere in an effort to boost influence in America's back yard. In October, Russia announced plans to re-open military installations in Cuba for long-range bombers and listening stations. In Nicaragua, Russia has already begun constructing a new satellite (i.e. spying) station and training centers; Nicaragua also purchased 50 Russian tanks as a part of the deal.
Last week, after the White House floated the possibility of a 20 percent tariff on goods imported from Mexico to pay for President Trump's border wall (which Lindsey Graham described as "Mucho sad"), Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto canceled a planned meeting on the issue with President Trump. Tensions are already escalating over this feud with a crucial neighbor for the U.S.: Mexico is America's 3rd largest trading partner and cooperates with the United States on issues extending far beyond immigration, like counter-narcotics.
While the United States stands to lose plenty in a feud with Mexico — major Mexican exports including cars, computers and oil, not to mention the peace and security that comes from having a friendly nation on our southern border — China only stands to gain. As a voracious consumer of fossil fuels, China could benefit from expanded access to Mexican oil exports as well as other natural resources including copper.
More importantly, China could use a Latin American partner for other more strategic goals. Recently, Chinese investments in a Nicaraguan super-canal, that would rival the Panama Canal in both size and trade, have begun to falter. With improved access to Mexico, China could move its canal dreams further north to the Mexican Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Or, perhaps China could revive Mexican dreams from the 1990s for a "land bridge" of railway lines stretching across Mexico from the Pacific to the Gulf, creating, as a consultant labeled it in 1997, a new trading "crossroads of the world."
Only this time, all roads lead to China.
Damian Koropeckyj, an independent consultant, is a former State Department employee and is a recent graduate of the UMBC Global Studies program. His email is email@example.com.