In my first post, I discussed China’s efforts to build stronger economic ties with Mexico – and why Mexico should be clear-eyed about China’s motives. In my second post, I examined the current economic relationship between Mexico and China. In this post, I will discuss why the economic relationship between China and Mexico has made so little progress.
At first blush, it is difficult to understand the disjunction between what has been said and what has actually been done. The two countries have signed an Integral Strategic Partnership, and China has explicitly offered its assistance should the Trump administration turn its back on Mexico. The Chinese ambassador to Mexico has claimed the two countries’ relationship is “better than ever,” but trade and investment levels are pitifully low, and for a variety of reasons those numbers are unlikely to change.
One huge reason Mexico’s relationship with China is unlikely to change is the existence – and proximity – of the United States. The United States has a huge (and growing) Hispanic population eager to consume a vast array of Mexican exports, whereas Chinese consumers are only interested in a few select Mexican products. Just look at the numbers. Mexico’s annual exports are worth $ 400 billion, and $ 291 billion of that goes to the United States. Only $ 8 billion goes to China. The American government has not exactly welcomed China’s attempts to establish closer ties with Mexico, and there are strong rumors Washington played a big role behind the scenes in the cancellation of the Mexico City-Queretaro rail and the Dragon Mart Cancun projects. Even if the Mexican and U.S. governments are not currently best of friends, our two countries will always be neighbors.
It is also true that Mexico and China have little economic synergy. China is Mexico’s direct competitor in the United States and for many of the same products. According to a study produced by UNAM, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Miami, from 2000-2011 both the U.S. and Mexico suffered substantial losses in their respective export markets in the NAFTA region. The study identified 52 sectors in Mexico in which the U.S. was losing market share and China was gaining, creating the inference that Mexico was making efficiency gains and had become more competitive in U.S. markets. However, the study found that Mexico was also losing market share in the U.S. in those same 52 sectors. In other words, China was outcompeting both countries — in part because of its advantage in manpower and its government subsidies.
The disconnects are on both sides. Mexico has failed to attract meaningful investment from China and instead focuses on Chinese tourism. Chinese companies have made little effort to do anything in Mexico beyond selling products to Mexican consumers. Mexico has failed to take advantage of China as an export market and has fallen back on sending China non-value added items such as tequila, pork, and fruit. The Chinese government does not make it easy for Mexican companies to enter the Chinese market. And China’s economic model depends on being able to run huge trade surpluses. Combine with this the devaluation of the peso and the rise in gas prices, and the result has been inflation that makes Mexican exports less attractive overseas. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, Mexico’s exports fell 4% in 2016.
Part of the problem has nothing to do with China and everything to do with Mexico. 99.8% of all businesses in Mexico are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and the vast majority of them are unsophisticated companies, with little interest in or knowledge of how to operate on an international scale. When these companies do seek to engage with China, some (or all) of the following problems arise:
- lack of due diligence about the Chinese market and possible business partners
- poorly implemented corporate governance structures
- failure to appreciate the paramount importance of IP protection, evidenced most often by discovering too late that a third party in China has registered “their” trademark
- lack of cultural and language proficiency on the part of Mexican staff, leading to an inability to deal with Chinese authorities
- inappropriate delegation of all responsibility for Chinese operations to poorly supervised Chinese staff
- lack of transactional oversight due to (relatively) low dollar values
And though more and more Mexican nationals are going to China for education and training, few Mexican companies know what to do with them upon their return to Mexico.
Perhaps the biggest problem Mexican companies face in China – and frankly, the same problem bedevils Chinese companies going abroad – is that they think they can operate overseas the same way they do at home. I still remember the first matter I handled with my company: a Mexican enterprise was operating in China, but had no idea about their legal status in China or whether they were operating legally. Everything from company formation to payroll had been delegated to their Chinese accountant, and as a result they had hired staff without any written contracts, they were not contributing to social insurance or housing funds, and they were paying everyone in cash. It was just a matter of time before they were found out and had the book thrown at them.
Finally, a nontrivial number of Mexicans (and some Chinese) consultants want Sino-Mexican relations to remain in this relatively primitive state, because this will allow these consultants to continue as “indispensable” founts of wisdom and knowledge in an uncertain world.
The one bright spot is the .02% of Mexican enterprises which are not SMEs. These enterprises are the huge multinational corporations known as multilatinas, and they are already operating in China as part of their global strategy. Some of them are already selling more goods in China than in the U.S., and to a one they plan to focus even more on the Middle Kingdom in the years to come. They would not be doing this if they weren’t already doing well in China. As global companies they consider themselves able to compete on the global stage, and you know what? They’re right.
In my concluding post, I’ll look to the future and specifically on how to improve the China-Mexico business relationship.
The above post is by Adrián Cisneros Aguilar. Adrian is the founder/CEO of Chevaya (驰亚), an Asia-Pacific internationalisation services company. Adrián has a Doctor of Laws from Shanghai Jiao Tong University and an LL.M. in International and Chinese Law from Wuhan University.