US Vice President Mike Pence held brief bilateral talks with the leaders of Mexico and Canada on Saturday about the state of play in their NAFTA renegotiations, saying he was “encouraged” by recent progress towards a deal.
The discussions on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Peru came as US officials said they believed they were narrowing differences over a revised North American Free Trade Agreement, 24 years after its inception.
But US relations with Mexico had soured in recent weeks as US President Donald Trump has sought to link the trade talks to Mexican efforts to stop migrants illegally crossing the border into the US, and ordered National Guard troops to the border.
Reporters travelling with Pence said the vice president first saw Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and then met with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto half an hour later.
Pence’s demeanor with Trudeau was notably warmer than with Pena Nieto.
“We are neighbors, we are cherished friends,” Pence said after shaking hands with the Canadian leader.
“We think we’re close” on a new NAFTA arrangement, Pence said.
“We are encouraged with the progress of our negotiations, and we are hopeful that we can conclude a successful renegotiation.”
Trudeau echoed Pence’s assessment, telling reporters he believed “good progress” was being made on NAFTA.
“There is a definite positive momentum,” he said, adding there was “potential progress” on issues related to the auto sector.
“We will continue to work hard at the negotiating table, we will continue to negotiate in good faith and hope to reach a win-win-win renegotiation of NAFTA.”
With Pena Nieto, meanwhile, Pence said: “I look forward to a discussion not only on NAFTA but on a broad range of issues.”
The Mexican leader emphasized the need to talk about “the bilateral relationship we want to have of cooperation and mutual respect.”
Neither man responded when reporters asked questions about the wall Trump wants to build along the US-Mexico border, or if Pena Nieto still rejected Trump’s demand that Mexico pay for the barrier.
Later, Pence told reporters that the meetings were “very productive.”
He confirmed that he and Pena Nieto did not discuss the contentious issue of Trump’s border wall.
“I think President Pena Nieto understands that he and President Trump have a difference of opinion on that,” he said.
Instead, the pair talked about a recent migrant “caravan” march that left from Central America and was heading to the US before dissipating in Mexico after Trump became agitated over it, and “a great deal about NAFTA,” Pence said.
“I’ll leave this summit very hopeful that we are very close to a renegotiated better deal for the American people” that is “mutually beneficial” for Mexico and Canada, he said.
“It’s not done yet. There are still issues that need to be resolved. But we believe there is a real possibility that we could arrive within the next several weeks at a renegotiated NAFTA.”
Mexico has already said it hopes to get agreement on the revised NAFTA deal next month — but Pena Nieto told reporters there is “absolutely no date” set to sign a new treaty.
The Mexican president has ordered his government to carry out a sweeping review of its cooperation with the United States amid rising tensions.
However, he said in Lima that during his meeting with Pence, he noted a “very positive, receptive and above all understanding attitude” to Mexico’s position.
Pence was accompanied by several US officials to Peru, including Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor tasked with handling various international foreign policy issues.
Kushner also took part in the bilateral talks with Trudeau and Pena Nieto, Pence aides said.