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US politicians talking about sending Special Forces into Mexico over cartel crisis, accusing China

Last week, Foreign Policy published a piece by Cato Institute’s researchers Justin Logan and Daniel Raisbeck titled “The U.S. Military Can’t Solve the Fentanyl Crisis”. The country has been going through an opioid epidemic, and an increasing share of the supply does come from Mexico. Political rhetoric against Mexican cartels is on the rise in the United States and so are American-Mexican tensions, as US policy-makers are calling for military “solutions”.

On August 26, during the Republican Party presidential debate, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Saturday once again promised to send US Special Forces into Mexico to fight drug cartels if he is elected president, saying. “We are going to act.” His spokesperson Bryan Griffin in turn elaborated later: “Ron DeSantis will declare the cartels to be narco-terrorists, and change the rules of engagement on the border. The full force of the federal government will be utilized to ensure that illegal drug flow is stopped, and he will bring to bear every tool he has to this end.”

The United States foreign policy, focused as it is on the maintenance of the unipolar world order, is complex - as one would expect from a superpower with declining naval hegemony: in its pursuit of the “American Century”, the US has often oscillated between “countering” Russia and China - or both, as US President Joe Biden seems to have it now with his dual containment policy. Thus, even today, the idea of pivoting into the Pacific still looms in the strategic thinking of US political and military elites, considering how overburdened Washington currently is. The idea of the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR), as an American geopolitical conceptual construction, plays a key role for American “containment” strategies aimed at China.

At the same time, I’ve written on how Washington cannot ignore the Middle East even while its influence there is weakening and as it eyes Central Asia -  James M. Dorsey, a S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies senior fellow, argues that “there is no cohesive Indo-Pacific strategy that fails to include the Arabian Sea, the Western mouth of the Indo-Pacific”, and adds that the same argument “could be made for Central Asia”, a “potential land-based counterpart to the maritime Indo-Pacific in Russia’s soft underbelly and China’s western flank.”

With such a convoluted foreign policy, it might even sometimes be hard for one to keep track of Washington interests in Latin America - for one thing, it would be tempting (and a serious mistake) to see that area as anything else than a stage for US-Chinese Great Power competition - without its own agenda and dynamics.

When it comes to such a strategic neighbor as Mexico (from  an American perspective), such limiting lenses seem to be framing the political debate, as we get closer to next year’s almost simultaneous elections in both countries.

Not surprisingly, and quite conveniently, American authorities have been vocally accusing Chinese companies of supplying the Mexican cartels with the building blocks needed to manufacture fentanyl. In May, the US sanctioned 17 individuals and entities in Mexico and China over the issue.

Ryan C. Berg, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes that in the aftermath of the first debate of the US presidential primary season in August, Mexico has occupied a very large portion of the debate’s foreign policy discussion, with a focus on border security and on the idea of the “taking out” the Mexican drug cartels. Such aggressive rhetoric and thinking does not take into account the impact such aggression on Mexican sovereignty would have on US-Mexican bilateral relations, Mexico already being a heavily militarized country. Since Trump’s years, relations have been in need of a reset.

Mexico was the United States second largest trading partner in 2021, with a total of $725.7 billion goods and services trade. By July 2023, Mexico had surpassed China, becoming the top trading partner. This is a complex multi-causal development which also reflects, among other things,  worsening diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing - in a world that is making it harder and harder to insulate industries from geopolitical disputes. It also reflects Mexico’s rise in manufacturing and the broader trend of nearshoring.

Mexico and the US share a 2,000-mile border with over 40 active land ports of entry. The bilateral relationship impacts millions of Mexicans and US Americans, extending way beyond official and diplomatic relations, as hundreds of thousands of people cross the border (legally) everyday.

Even though the two neighboring nations complement each other economically, there is historical distrust, and, from a Mexican perspective, the pragmatic diplomacy of Beijing contrasts to American aggressiveness. Any US projects involving the sending of Special Forces could further alienate its Latin American partner and further motivate Mexican projects of selective uncoupling from the US.

At the same time, as the global supply chain is being refashioned, Chinese companies have been investing billions in Mexico, as a means to preserve their sales to the US - a market they do not want to lose. American politicians in fact accuse Chinese companies of taking advantage of the “new NAFTA” (as the USMCA has been called) by establishing factories in Mexico so as to label their goods as “Made in Mexico”, writes economic journalist Peter S. Goodman. The truth is that there is a new American-Mexican-Chinese economic dynamic emerging.

In other words, both anti-Mexican and anti-Chinese rhetoric are on the rise in American politics, but the US is too much integrated with both its southern neighbor and its Asian rival. Because political actions often have economic repercussions, adding further across-border militarization into this complicated dynamic could have quite unpredictable and escalating consequences.

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