MEXICO CITY, March 20 (Reuters) - A former World Trade Organization economist picked to lead NAFTA negotiations by the front-runner in the race for Mexico's presidency told Reuters on Tuesday that modernising parts of the pact should be possible while stressing the importance of relations with the United States.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist who leads most polls ahead of Mexico's July 1 election, said on Tuesday that if he is elected he would put Jesus Seade in charge of steering talks with the United States and Canada to revamp the 24-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement.
Speaking by phone with Reuters, Seade voiced optimism, though he noted that he had not begun work on the issue.
"The economic relationship with the United States is super important," he said. "It stands to reason to think that 25 years after the negotiation has been concluded there would be issues and areas where updating may be possible and in the interest of the three countries."
Mexico depends heavily on trade with the United States, which receives about 80 percent of its exports.
The Mexican economy was plunged into uncertainty after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has vowed to leave NAFTA if he cannot secure better terms.
Although he has been critical of NAFTA, Lopez Obrador now says he wants to preserve the pact.
Seade, who is associate vice president for global affairs at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shenzhen, described himself as a longtime supporter of Lopez Obrador's.
He said he is eager to return to public service, having served as Mexico's trade ambassador in negotiations to found the WTO, where he formerly served as deputy director-general.
"To me, there is no higher honor than serving your country," he said. "I think there is something I can do, and I will be delighted to."
Although he said he has met Lopez Obrador just once, Seade has close ties to the candidate's economic team, including proposed finance minister Carlos Urzua and would-be economy minister Graciela Marquez.
"These are people that I know well and respect," he said.
Seade also brings ties to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, whose family controls telecommunications firm America Movil. Seade said his sister married one of Slim's older brothers.
"I've never worked with him -- I know him socially," Seade said of Slim, noting he hadn't seen him in 10 or 15 years.
In a video announcing Seade's appointment, Lopez Obrador mistakenly gave the economist's name as "Seade Helu." Helu is Slim's second last name. (Additional reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)