At a presentation to business leaders by the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve last year, the question arose about whether the United States should pay closer attention to China as a trade partner.
The answer given by a Federal Reserve official was unexpected: The U.S. needs to pay greater attention to Mexico, because that's where some of the most significant economic opportunities are likely to be.
“A lot of people in the room were surprised,” one of the people at that meeting, Hector Barreto – the former head of the U.S. Small Business Administration who is now the chairman of the Latino Coalition, told Fox News Latino. “[The official] said that Mexico is very uniquely positioned – it has an educated populace, a very industrious and entrepreneurial community – and it’s our neighbor, our second-largest trading partner, which has access to the largest market in the world.”
On Wednesday, Barreto, whose father emigrated from Mexico and founded the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is traveling to his ancestral land with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and a group of business leaders for a three-day trip.
Officially, it is a trade mission whose goals are “to promote increased relationship, job creation and higher education opportunities,” according a press release from Christie’s office.
Beyond that, it is also a chance to get some foreign policy schooling should Christie decide to run for president in 2016.
With his state exporting $2 billion worth of goods to Mexico and tens of thousands of New Jersey jobs relying on the relationship, Christie is the latest potential presidential contender to cross the country's borders on official business — and in pursuit of international expertise and credibility.
"If you're a national leader of the party and you go abroad and you meet other foreign leaders, you learn," Christie, who also is chairman of the Republican Governors Association, told reporters. "And that'll make you a better leader whether you run for anything else or whether you just continue to try to be an influential governor in our country regarding the national debates that come up."
In 2013, New Jersey exported more than $2.18 billion worth of goods to Mexico, according to administration numbers, second only to Canada, reported the Washington Times. Total imports to New Jersey from Mexico topped $3.48 billion in 2013.
New Jersey had more than 217,000 residents of Mexican descent as of 2013, according to Christie’s office.
Christie is just one of the Republicans trying to beef up their foreign policy credentials for a potential general election matchup against Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, a former secretary of state.
The nation's role in international affairs is likely to be a key issue in the 2016 contest regardless of the candidates. After consecutive elections focused largely on the American economy, foreign affairs has returned to the forefront with the rise of the Islamic State militant group in Syria and Iraq and the Russian-backed rebellion in Ukraine.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul recently returned from Guatemala, where he performed eye surgeries with news cameras in tow. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum just came back from Israel; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is there now. Two days after Christie returns from Mexico, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is expected to head to China and Japan.
They are all following paths out of the country well-worn by presidential contenders, including former governors Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who used the travel overseas to boost their foreign policy credentials.
"Every governor who wants to be president has to go on an international trade mission to show their foreign policy bona fides," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
The trips, campaign veterans say, give potential candidates the chance to look presidential as they stand side-by-side with world leaders. Arriving in Mexico Wednesday, Christie is meeting with the American and Mexican ambassadors, as well as President Enrique Peña Nieto.
For Christie, the trip also offers him a chance to build credibility with increasingly influential Latino voters.
But more broadly, international experience could be critical in the 2016 presidential cycle, as the U.S. confronts conflicts in Israel, Syria, Ukraine and Russia. Clinton, who was secretary of state for four years, would have a substantial head start on foreign policy experience over any Republican now considering a presidential bid. She's dealt with foreign leaders for years; now it's Christie's turn.
"It begins to help the American people understand, 'Hey, this person has the experience and the gravitas to be commander in chief,'" said Lanhee Chen, the top policy adviser to 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
For Barreto, however, the trip – which his organization took part in coordinating – brings another chance to twin his passions of business and Mexico.
“Mexico over the last couple of decades has done an incredible job of stabilizing its financial system,” Barreto said. “They’ve made a lot of structural reforms. As a country, we run around trying to explore new opportunities. But we can’t ignore our most important regional partners to the south just because we also have policy issues we have to resolve.”
Some of the topics Christie and Mexican officials will discuss are energy, higher education and trade opportunities.
Such trips, Barreto said, can expand understanding and stimulate interest in further engagement.
“After NAFTA, many factories on the Mexican side went to China, because labor rates were going up in Mexico,” he said. “What’s happening is that those factories are moving back to Mexico because labor rights are going up in China. And U.S. companies realize that China is too far away, Mexico is right there, and they can have something they need the next day.”
Christie's trip abroad this week is his second as governor after visiting Israel in 2012.
The three-day trip will features sit-downs with President Peña Nieto and other officials, meals and meetings with Mexican business leaders and a sojourn to Puebla, where he's scheduled to spend some time visiting a park and local school.
There, he'll have the opportunity to show off his greatest political asset: his ability to interact with people.
Christie will be trailed step-by-step by the media. He has no plans to try to speak Spanish while there, and he'll be traveling with a translator.
"I never have been really good at foreign languages. I tried in high school, I tried in college and just never had an aptitude for it," Christie told reporters before departing. "I think the worst thing in the world is when politicians try to fake it. You know, they've got a few things written in a foreign language in front of them, they say it, and they sound stupid and everybody knows they don't really know what they're talking about. And I'm not going to do that."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.