China eyes new turf: S. America
Bush visits Friday, but President Hu Jintao has been striking business deals for two weeks.
When President Bush arrives here Friday for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, he's likely to be met by student protesters already in the streets chanting against "globalization," "colonialism," and the US occupation of Iraq.Skip to next paragraph
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But China's President Hu Jintao is getting quite a different reception. For two weeks now, he's been cutting ribbons at new factories in Argentina, enjoying beef barbecues in Brazil, addressing congresses, and announcing investment projects as he and 150 Chinese businessmen make their way across South America and on to Cuba.
As in Asia and Africa, China is rapidly expanding its economic and diplomatic presence in Latin America. Frustration in this region over what is perceived as Washington's preoccupation with the war on terror, and US trade pacts that never quite get signed, coincides with a surge in exports and new trade deals with China.
"It is telling that Hu is spending more time in South America over this fortnight than Bush has in the past four years," says William Ratliff, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "Hu will come over as much more interested in Latin American people," he suggests. "His sweet, soft-power vibes leave Bush sounding like a foghorn."
South America's "trade surpluses will be driven this year and next by Chinese demand for foodstuffs and raw materials," says Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Hu's visit, he adds, is a "diplomatic breakthrough."
China's trade volume with Brazil, Argentina, and Chile reached $14.6 billion last year. Of this, China imported $10.7 billion worth of goods, mainly agricultural products and a variety of ores and minerals, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
"I think the trip has gone well," says Cynthia Watson, a specialist in Chinese involvement in Latin America at the National War College in Washington. "Beijing leaders like the press attention because they can point to it as evidence that China is finally taking its rightful place as the important power on the international stage that they want to be," she says, stressing that her views are personal. "They are setting the stage for longer-term ties, and the Latin American states are eager for that."
China is, of course, not popular everywhere in the region. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost in sectors such as textiles and electronics in Mexico and elsewhere in Central America due to Chinese competition in manufacturing exports. But this is increasingly being offset, especially in the South, by the booming commodity trade.
Over the past five years, bilateral trade between China and its most important partner in the region - Brazil - has more than quadrupled to $6.7 billion last year. By comparison, Brazil imported nearly $11.2 billion in US goods and services. The US is still Brazil's largest trading partner.
But when Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva led a weighty 450-member trade mission to China in May, the two countries signed 14 accords. During Hu's visit this week, Chinese officials suggested that trade with Brazil could climb to $35 billion by 2010. China is expected to eclipse Argentina as Brazil's second-largest export destination by next year.