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The flags of Canada and Mexico fly in the breeze at the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans ahead of a leaders summit on April 21, 2008.Judi Bottoni/The Associated Press

Canada is pushing to strengthen its relationship with Mexico, recognizing the country's economic rise and importance as a trading partner and looking past its current struggles with violence and crime.

Mexico is trying to wrestle swaths of territory away from drug gangs, has a spotty justice system and is the subject of human-rights concerns. And getting closer has never been easy: both countries have trouble looking past the U.S. to each other.

The Harper government has made early efforts to get close to Mexico's new administration, led by President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took power in December. In another move to improve relations, Canada recently took steps to remove its requirement for Mexican visitors to have visas.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who was in the Dominican Republic on Thursday winding up a tour of five Latin American countries, drew attention for making the first visit to Cuba by a Canadian foreign affairs minister in 15 years. He emphasized that Canada had not adopted the U.S. "blockade" strategy, but kept doing business with Havana – a message that Ottawa should not be lumped in with Washington.

But Mr. Baird described his stop in Mexico last week as the "anchor" of the trip.

"One of the things we wanted to do was engage very early with the new government," he said, noting he met with Mr. Pena Nieto in Davos when he was still a presidential candidate, and that as president-elect, Mr. Pena Nieto visited Ottawa. "We're pleased with where [the relationship] is, but the trajectory is more important."

"Mexico, in our lifetime, is going to be a top-10 world economy, and potentially in our lifetime, a top-five world economy," Mr. Baird said in an interview. "It's tremendously important, not just that we look at it through the trilateral relationship with the United States, but that bilaterally we work with them on security, on jobs, and on values."

Canada's past interest in Mexico has blown hot and cold, even after the North American free-trade agreement went into effect in 1994. In Ottawa, the question has been whether to embrace an ally in the trilateral pact, or keep its distance for fear its border issues and other problems will taint Canada.

Mr. Baird went to Mexico as the Harper government announced a move to fast-track Mexican asylum-seekers through the Canadian refugee system – a key step toward dropping the visitors' visa requirements that have irritated Mexico.

He noted that Mr. Pena Nieto has talked of domestic measures that could provide trade opportunities for Canadian companies – a reference to loosening the state-controlled energy sector to allow partnerships with foreign firms.

But there is another reason Mexico could be crucial to Canada's trading interests: it may be a linchpin in Pacific trade talks.

The country is one of four, along with Colombia, Peru and Chile, forming a bloc called the Pacific Alliance that runs down Latin America's west. And those countries – all of which have free-trade agreements with Canada – are looking to open free-trade arrangements in Asia, notably with the 10-nation ASEAN bloc in Southeast Asia.

While Mr. Baird was in Mexico and Peru, Diane Ablonczy, the junior foreign minister for the Americas, was on her own Latin American tour, including the two other Pacific Alliance nations, Colombia and Chile, displaying the Harper government's reviving interest in the region, and the alliance.

Canada gained observer status in the Pacific Alliance in November, and is watching closely to see if it develops as a vehicle for its own pan-Pacific trade. The Harper government has not said whether it will attempt to gain full membership. And Mr. Baird said Ottawa views those four countries as "like-minded" democracies that it can deal with. "Open societies, open governments, and open economies," he said.

Mexico, like Canada, also formally joined negotiations in October for a larger Pacific trading bloc, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In those talks, both have common interests and fears, said Carlo Dade, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa's School of International Development, and former executive director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas.

Both have to worry that the United States might deal away some of their NAFTA advantages, and play one neighbour off the other in the TPP talks, Mr. Dade said. The growth of the Mexican-American vote has given the country influence in Washington, too.

"We need Mexico once again," Mr. Dade said.