CANCUN, Mexico - President Bush and the leaders of Canada and Mexico worked to iron out disagreements over trade and border security Thursday and to keep a North American edge against competition from rising powers like China.
The three leaders, dressed casually in open-collared shirts, strolled together among the ancient Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza before sitting down for more intense one-on-one meetings at a beachfront resort hotel. Mexican President Vicente Fox planned a lavish dinner for his guests.
"This is a good start to a very important series of discussions," Bush said, standing with his counterparts in front of a large pyramid at the center of Chichen Itza. "We've got vital relations that matter to the future of our people."
But Fox suggested one item at the top of his agenda is really out of their hands. The U.S. Senate is debating changes to U.S. immigration laws that could affect an estimated 6 million Mexicans living illegally in the United States. Bush is pushing for a guest worker program that would allow foreigners to stay temporarily in low-paying jobs, which Fox says is a good first step toward some form of legal status for all illegal Mexicans.
"The matter is in the Congress of the United States and that is where the decision will be made," Fox said. "It is no longer between President Bush and President Fox."
After spending the morning sightseeing, Bush had a few hours before the formal meetings began and used part of the time to work up a sweat in his hotel's gym.
There was tight security alongside the fun-loving atmosphere among college students who have flocked to Cancun for spring break. Gunboats patrolled the turquoise waters off Bush's spa resort, and fencing kept out all but hotel guests. "I'd like to make sure you work more than you play," Bush joked to reporters.
The immigration debate is receiving a lot of attention at the summit, where the official focus is a year-old pact designed to make borders more secure without hampering business and traffic. Signed a year ago near Bush's Texas ranch, the Security and Prosperity Partnership aims to better protect the three countries from outside attack and ensure their global competitiveness with China and other trade powerhouses.
Bush told CTV earlier this week that he worries people in all three countries could have a "protectionist tendency" that would make it harder for them to reap the benefits of mutual collaboration. "Frankly, it will make it a lot harder for future Americans and Canadians and Mexicans to compete with the Chinese, for example," he said.
Even though China has a rapidly growing economy, Canada and Mexico remain the top two trading partners of the United States. All three leaders are under pressure to resolve problems related to the enormous flow of goods and people between their countries. The economic concerns have replaced the diplomatic differences that defined the relationship in Bush's first term.
Both Canada and Mexico refused to support the war against Iraq, and that disagreement strained historically close ties.
This week's summit marked a new phase in Bush's ever-changing relationship with the nations - it was his first official visit with conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper since Harper took office two months ago after promising to improve U.S. relations. And it reflected the closing stages of his relationship with Fox, who will leave office this year after building a personal bond with the American president that extends back to Bush's time as governor of Texas. A more liberal candidate is leading in the campaign to replace Fox.
Topping Harper's agenda is a long stalemate over U.S. tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber imports. Bush said in a pre-trip interview that resolving the dispute will require "very quiet consultations."
Harper also wanted to address Washington's intention to require passports or other forms of secure identification to enter the United States by 2008. Business groups fear the proposal will severely impede tourism and commerce between the world's largest trading bloc, which conducts some $1.5 billion in business daily.