The Mexican government gave Justin Trudeau a warm welcome as a friend, but what it really wants is a commitment.
This is a time when Mexicans are feeling beaten up by U.S. President Donald Trump, so the Canadian Prime Minister is a relief for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto: a North American friend who isn't talking about putting up walls or tearing down NAFTA.
There was pomp, with big Maple Leaf banners and a military band at the National Palace, and when the two leaders reviewed the honour guard, Mr. Trudeau reached an arm across Mr. Pena Nieto's back, and the Mexican President briefly returned the bro gesture. Mr. Trudeau was the PM who pleased Mexico by lifting visitor-visa requirements the Mexicans had bitterly resented for seven years. He's got a bit of glam that foreign counterparts like. On Friday, Mr. Trudeau will address the Mexican Senate, an honour that, according to former Mexican ambassador to Canada Francisco Suarez, is reserved for "major players."
But what the Mexicans really want is Canada to commit to sticking with them through trade-talk travails. Mexico has warned that if Mr. Trump triggers the six-month notice for withdrawal from NAFTA, it'll walk away from negotiations. It has said if Mr. Trump pulls out of NAFTA, it won't do a bilateral trade deal. It would like Canada to take the same unequivocal stands.
For the Mexicans, there's a fear that Canada is going to dump them when it gets tough, to do a bilateral trade deal with the Americans. "There is an element of doubt there," said Mr. Suarez. President Pena Nieto, he said, will certainly be asking him to "clarify."
Mr. Trudeau isn't willing to rule that out. Mexico would like Canada to say they, too, are for NAFTA 2.0, or bust.
"It was a topic that I tackled with the Prime Minister of Canada," Mr. Pena Nieto said as the two held a joint press conference. But this was an event to highlight friendship, so he didn't say what the outcome was. Neither did Mr. Trudeau really. Both said they wanted an updated NAFTA. "Obviously we know that we are in a somewhat unpredictable context," Mr. Trudeau said, but added that both he and the Mexican President agreed they had to stay focused on working seriously for the benefits of their citizens: "On that we're in perfect agreement."
Mr. Trudeau wasn't going to promise he's in that alliance to the bitter end.
For Canada, there's always been an uncertain question about whether the death of NAFTA might lead to a fallback on the old Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement from 1988; maybe, if the trilateral NAFTA dies, Canada would negotiate a new bilateral deal with the U.S.
Now, with Mr. Trump's negotiators tabling poison-pill proposals in the NAFTA talks that appear designed to kill them, Mr. Trudeau's team has to be wondering whether a bilateral deal will be Plan B. The Mexicans view it as buckling under.
There is a more visceral feeling about the NAFTA talks in Mexico, too. The Mexicans have been Mr. Trump's target on trade and many other things. Mr. Pena Nieto's government insists it won't negotiate with a gun to its head – Mr. Trump has said he wants to trigger the six-month notice for terminating NAFTA to get a better deal out of Canada and Mexico. The Mexicans don't think they'd get a workable bilateral deal, so they don't want Canada to jump at one. "Bilaterally, I think the United States can do pretty much whatever they want with us," said Mr. Suarez, who was President Pena Nieto's envoy in Ottawa from 2013 to 2016.
He argues that Mexico and Canada have more power together. When the U.S. imposed special labelling requirements for Mexican and Canadian beef and pork, the two countries successfully fought it together, he noted; when the U.S. and Japan moved to open the North American auto market to Asian competitors in the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, Canada and Mexico worked together to roll the move back significantly.
That's not lost on Mr. Trudeau's team. It has joined forces with Mexicans to lobby American policy-makers in Congress and state capitals, so they'll lobby against killing NAFTA. But in this friendship, Mexico is asking for commitment, and Mr. Trudeau is keeping his options open.