MEXICO CITY — IN meetings filled more with symbolism than substance, Secretary of State James Baker III and a high-level delegation tried Monday to put a new face on one of the United States's most volatile and vital relationship: its ties with Mexico. After years of prickly confrontations, the two countries now seem eager to defuse - or at least disregard - their basic differences over drug trafficking, illegal immigration, and US policy toward Central America.
Leaving those issues behind, Cabinet-level delegations accentuated the positive - and paved the way for an Oct. 3 meeting between President George Bush and his Mexican counterpart, Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
``Some defined the old US-Mexican relationship as `Managing Irritants,''' said Secretary Baker in his opening remarks. ``We are committed to a new relationship: `Creating Common Opportunities.'''
The new phrasing reveals a shift from political to economic concerns, according to political experts here.
Now that Mexico has signed a debt-reduction accord with its commercial banks, the financially minded Baker sees Mexico - already the US's third-largest trading partner - as a land of trade and foreign investment opportunities.
Monday's meeting, however, created mainly photo opportunities. It was the first top-level meeting between the Mexican and US governments since Mr. Bush and Mr. Salinas took office almost simultaneously last winter.
The high-powered US entourage boasted four Cabinet members, including Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.
Nevertheless, only six minor accords were signed - from cleaning up border pollution to building a new bridge across the Rio Grande.
``It was a purely symbolic meeting,'' says one former Mexican official. ``Do you think they needed four Cabinet members to sign an agreement to build a bridge? No, but they needed them for effect.''
The symbolic effect, US officials say, is to show that the US is serious about improving relations with Mexico, which shares the 1,952-mile border and bears an enormous economic burden after seven years of crisis.
Ever since he squeaked by a leftist opponent in last summer's fraud-marred presidential elections, Salinas has enjoyed US support. At first it was based on the fear of the Mexican left and social unrest.
But now, according to political analysts, US backing is based on confidence - both in Salinas' bold anti-corruption campaign and in his anti-inflation economic program.
During his first eight months, Salinas has deposed corrupt labor leaders, jailed a drug kingpin, arrested a crooked financier, conceded a state election to the opposition, and arrived at a debt deal with the commercial banks.
Moreover, at the urging of the US, Mexico is also pursuing an economic policy that reduces state participation in the economy and opens it up to foreign investment - especially from US companies.
To some critics, Mexico has bowed to the US too much.
``Other than the debt, the US has not invested any time, any effort, or any sizable amount of resources to improve its relationship with Mexico,'' says political scientist Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, rattling off a list of Mexico's concessions for everything from drugs to debt. ``So far, Mexico is doing more than the US to improve the relationship.''