Top US diplomat 'visits' Mexico, Canada on virtual trip

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second from right, speaks during a virtual meeting at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, with Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau who is in Ottawa, Canada. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, Pool)

WASHINGTON – Diplomats sat beside stacks of briefing papers, flanked by flags and emphasized their closeness. But they were geographically far apart Friday as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, because of the pandemic, started a new chapter in North American relations with virtual visits to Mexico and Canada in what was billed as his first official trip.

Though symbolically important in any administration, the decision by President Joe Biden to dispatch Blinken to Mexico and Canada for the first visits, even virtually, is part of a broader effort to turn the page from a predecessor who at times had fraught relations with both nations. The three nations signed a revamped trade accord last year after then-President Donald Trump demanded a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“The United States has long-standing relationships with both Mexico and Canada," Blinken said afterward. “Today’s meetings were an opportunity to dive deeper into shared priorities.”

Biden will engage himself with his counterpart, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, on Monday when the two leaders are scheduled to hold their own virtual meeting. The two leaders are expected to discuss migration, the COVID-19 recovery and economic cooperation, according to the White House.

The secretary began his virtual visits with Mexico, a country Trump repeatedly disparaged in his campaign and early in his presidency, though relations turned more cordial under López Obrador.

“I wanted to ‘visit,’ in quotation marks, Mexico first to demonstrate the importance that we attach, President Biden attaches, to the relationship between our countries,” Blinken told his counterpart, Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard.

Blinken’s meetings with Mexico and Canada, two of the largest U.S. trading partners, covered economic issues as well as well as efforts to confront climate change and fight COVID-19, which prompted the countries to close their borders to all but essential traffic.

Biden last week made his first bilateral meeting, also virtual, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who at times had a frosty relationship with Trump. Biden disappointed some in Canada with his decision upon taking office to reverse Trump and revoke the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, which President Barack Obama's administration determined had only limited energy and economic benefits to the U.S. and conflicted with efforts to curb climate change.