MEXICO CITY - The Liberal government's approach to foreign policy as a mix of formal and public diplomacy was on full display Thursday as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived for his first state visit to Mexico.
The pomp and circumstance that greeted Trudeau at the airport was followed by a sombre wreath-laying ceremony at a monument commemorating Mexico's efforts to beat back an American invasion in the 1850s — an apt image as both Canada and Mexico now contemplate how to withstand new U.S. strong-arming efforts over trade.
While the ongoing renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement will be the centrepiece of Trudeau's bilateral meeting later Thursday with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, the Canadian government is also in Mexico to play a longer game.
Pena Nieto's term is nearly up in government and with Mexico one of the countries on Trudeau's priority list for stronger relations, one goal of this visit is to forge new relationships and cement Canada's standing in the eyes of Mexicans as a trusted partner in all things, not just trade.
Hence, Thursday's visit to a Red Cross distribution centre, where Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau donned volunteer vests and handed over boxes of baby goods, foods and household supplies for earthquake relief efforts. To the whir of a wall of cameras, they packed donation boxes, toured the centre and shook hands with beaming volunteers to the chants of "Canada."
I love Mexico, said Trudeau, whose arrival in Mexico City followed a day of meetings in Washington, D.C., focused on rescuing the ailing North American Free Trade Agreement.
All the fanfare was surely a welcome distraction from NAFTA, which experts and observers alike say could well be on the verge of collapse — a possibility Trudeau seemed to acknowledge Wednesday after meeting with the trade deal's most prominent enemy: U.S. President Donald Trump.
Prior to sitting down with Trudeau, Trump said it would be fine if NAFTA was terminated, although members of Congress expressed hope earlier in the day it could be reworked.
Similarly mixed feelings seem to exist in Mexico, where Pena Nieto has pledged to defend the deal, but some of his senior leadership appear to be laying groundwork for it to fail.
The country's foreign relations secretary said this week it would not be a big deal for Mexico to just walk away from the talks, and that Mexico won't accept "limited, managed trade" — an apparent reference to demands for higher U.S. and regional content rules on products like auto parts.
Meanwhile, a veteran Mexican diplomat has expressed fears about the possibility that NAFTA could be ditched in favour of bilateral agreements, an issue raised by Trump as well.
"Some of us in Mexico think that on several occasions our Canadian friends have come close to throwing us under the bus," Arturo Sarukhan, the former Mexican ambassador to the U.S., said at a NAFTA-related event Wednesday in D.C.
"How do we Mexicans ensure (our) Canadian friends stay focused on a trilateral approach?"
Trudeau was asked whether a bilateral deal with Mexico could be in the cards should the trilateral talks fail.
He said he knows there are other paths that could be pursued, and they'll be followed if necessary. But for now, he remains optimistic.
"I continue to believe in NAFTA; I continue to believe that as a continent, working together in complementary ways is better for our citizens and better for economic growth, and allows us to compete on a stronger footing with the global economy," Trudeau said.
"So saying, we are ready for anything and we will continue to work diligently to protect Canadian interests, to stand up for jobs, and look for opportunities for Canadian business and citizens of all of our friends and neighbour countries to do well."
Finance Minister Bill Morneau, in Washington for meetings with G20 finance ministers and the International Monetary Fund, was confronted Thursday with several questions about a possible U.S. exit from NAFTA.
"There's a path to be optimistic here and, you know, maybe he'll come around," Morneau said, an apparent reference to Trump. "I'm of the view that over the long term, because trade has been so beneficial for everyone, that we will get through periods of question."
Trudeau's visit to Mexico is his first official sojourn to the country and follows Pena Nieto's visit to Canada in June 2016.
Trudeau will address the Mexican Senate on Friday to send a signal that Canada considers Mexico one of its top partners and wants to continue to work together on a number of fronts.