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Hu’s LatAm trip expands China’s profile in US backyard

Agence France Presse | 24 November 2008

Hu’s LatAm trip expands China’s profile in US backyard

LIMA (AFP) - Chinese President Hu Jintao has left Latin America with one free trade agreement in hand, another in the works and a deeper Chinese footprint in a region long seen as the US backyard.

Hu, who left the region Sunday, received a hero’s welcome at every stop in his swing through Costa Rica, Cuba, and Peru in the latest clear sign of the giant Asian economy’s growing clout in the developing world.

Chinese trade, cultural and military ties with Latin America remain small compared to US influence, but Hu’s trip underlined that they are growing fast and should force US policymakers to sit up and take notice, analysts said.

"When you look at the numbers it does appear that China is making some quantifiable inroads into what had heretofore been a traditional American area of influence," said John Tkacik, a China expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think tank.

Hu visited Costa Rica to launch talks on a free trade pact and announced the conclusion of a similar agreement with Peru, reaffirming Beijing’s friendship with communist ally Cuba in between.

On a state visit in Lima held before a weekend summit of Asia-Pacific nations, Hu on Thursday pledged a higher Chinese profile in the region.

"China is willing to work together with South American and Caribbean countries toward an equal, mutually beneficial, comprehensive partnership," he said in an address to the Peruvian parliament.

Chinese trade with the region has grown about ten-fold over the past decade as China’s quest for new sources of raw materials has expanded and Latin American purchases of Chinese-made goods have also climbed.

A few years ago, Hu set a target of 100 billion dollars in trade with Latin America by 2010. It shattered that mark in 2007.

With the trade ties has come expanded diplomatic influence.

China last year enticed Costa Rica to cut relations with Beijing’s rival Taiwan, reportedly purchasing 300 million dollars in Costa Rican government debt in return.

Other conditions work in China’s favor as well, notably the diversion of US attention by the US administration’s wars and Mideast preoccupation.

Meanwhile, left-wing governments more ideologically sympathetic to China have come to power in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, not to mention longtime US bugbear Venezuela under Hugo Chavez.

"US attention on the region has never been weaker. Now is a good time for China to challenge US influence," said Farid Kahatt, an expert on Latin American diplomacy at the Catholic University of Peru.

China’s overseas charm offensive has already ruffled feathers elsewhere, most notably in Africa.

Beijing has aggressively pursued friendships with regimes there that control resources needed by China, drawing criticism in the West for overlooking human rights abuses and other shortcomings of those regimes.

Beijing insists it is not seeking to upset the geopolitical status quo, but its cozy relations with US rivals like Venezuela and Cuba have raised eyebrows.

"By presenting an alternative political and economic model, and an alternative to the United States as a trade partner, (China) is significantly undermining the US agenda to advance political reform, human rights and free trade in Latin America," according to a report by the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami.

China will never replace US influence in the region, by dint of America’s immense power and cultural similarities with its southern neighbors, said Kahatt.

There also remain many trade areas in which China’s and Latin America’s economies are in competition, he added.

But the days of unchallenged US dominance may have ended, said Tkacik.

"Long-term, there will be a relative loss of American influence in Latin America, felt primarily in the political and military sectors," he said.

"With China as a partner, these countries may no longer think they need the legitimation of the United States."

 source: AFP