Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, struck a conciliatory tone during a visit to Mexico, saying the neighbouring countries had an opportunity to upgrade their economic relationship.
After meeting Mexican officials during his second mission as the top US diplomat, Mr Tillerson said the countries had agreed to “seize the opportunity to modernise and strengthen our trade and energy relationship”. His remarks came just after President Donald Trump said in Washington that Mr Tillerson and John Kelly, homeland security secretary, would experience a “tough trip” in Mexico.
“In a relationship filled with vibrant colours, two strong sovereign countries from time to time will have differences,” Mr Tillerson said. “We listened closely and carefully to each other as we respectfully and patiently raised our respective concerns.”
Mr Kelly said the US would not use military force to enforce immigration policy, in remarks that contradicted Mr Trump who described his clampdown on illegal immigrants as a “military operation”. Sean Spicer, White House spokesman, said Mr Trump was using the word “as an adjective” to describe “precision” of the operation.
Mr Tillerson and Mr Kelly were later expected to meet Enrique Peña Nieto, the Mexican president who recently cancelled a visit to Washington for a summit with Mr Trump over strains in relations exacerbated by tweets by the US president.
Relations between the nations, which deteriorated last year over comments Mr Trump made during the campaign, have soured further as he has insisted that Mexico would have to pay for the wall he wants to build on the border. While Mexicans have been incensed at Mr Trump, Mr Spicer this week called US-Mexico relations “phenomenal”.
The visit by Mr Tillerson and Mr Kelly took place soon after announcements of a US crackdown on undocumented migrants that will involve automatically sending people back to Mexico when they cross the border illegally — even if they are not Mexican.
Some experts were hoping the two cabinet secretaries would adopt a less confrontational approach during their visit. Mike Pence, the vice-president, and Mr Tillerson last week reassured Europe that Washington was committed to its European allies, raising hopes that the US administration would pivot to a more traditional Republican foreign policy approach.
“Tillerson and Kelly represent the adult wing of the new regime,” said former Mexican congressman Agustín Barrios Gómez. “This group is exactly who we want in Mexico.”
While Mr Tillerson has no previous diplomatic background, he does have experience with Mexico. The former ExxonMobil chief executive collaborated with Pemex, Mexico’s national oil company, ahead of the government’s opening of the energy sector in 2014.
For Mr Peña Nieto, the meeting is a difficult balancing act between protecting Mexico’s $580bn annual trade relationship with the US and trying not to anger Mexicans at home. Many Mexicans were angry at his decision to meet Mr Trump in September last year. The political fallout was so great that Luis Videgaray, then Mexico’s finance minister, briefly left government for having arranged the meeting.
Some political commentators have questioned the value of negotiating with a US president who has talked of import tariffs and border wall reimbursements. “The underlying concern is that Trump may not be a rational actor, nor is he surrounded by rational actors that can be relied upon to rein him in from excesses,” said Sebastian Miralles, managing partner at Tempest Capital, a Mexican private equity firm.
Mr Trump has also said Nafta should be renegotiated. Some Mexican officials and analysts have hinted at countermeasures, suggesting that Mexico could suspend its co-operation on joint efforts to reduce transit migration and drug trafficking.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi
Sample the FT’s top stories for a week
You select the topic, we deliver the news.