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China's big move into Latin America

Brazil's largest trading partner is no longer the US – it's China. Beijing is investing billions of dollars and filling a vacuum left by the United States.

By Tyler BridgesMcClatchy Newspapers / July 12, 2009

Rio de Janeiro

All but invisible in Latin America a decade ago, China now is building cars in Uruguay, donating a soccer stadium to Costa Rica, and lending $10 billion to Brazil's biggest oil company.

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It's supplanted the United States to become the biggest trading partner with Brazil, South America's biggest economy.

China has moved aggressively to fill a vacuum left by the United States in recent years, as the US focused on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the global economic crisis sapped its economy.

"China is rising while the US is declining in Latin America," Riordan Roett, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University, said by telephone while São Paulo. "China is all over this region. They are following a state-driven policy to expand their peaceful presence."

Mandarin spoken here

China is beefing up its embassies throughout Latin America, opening Confucian centers to expand Chinese culture, sending high-level trade delegations throughout the region and opening the door for ordinary Chinese to visit Machu Picchu, Rio, and other tourism hot spots.

Aiping Yuan came to Rio de Janeiro from Beijing in 1997 on a lark, fell in love with the city, and decided to stay. She studied Portuguese, and when Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made his first visit to China in 2004, she opened a small school in Rio to teach Mandarin.

She began with six students and today has 300, including senior executives at Petrobras, the country's biggest oil company, and Vale do Rio Doce, the biggest mineral producer. Both have growing business with China.

"Chinese is the language of the future for Brazil," Yuan said with a big smile.

China has forged a strategic alliance with Brazil that's allowed the two countries to partner with India and Russia in the so-called BRIC grouping, which is demanding a greater voice in global political and economic affairs. Indeed, China is making inroads with developing countries worldwide.

Resources shopping

Beijing's main interest in Latin America has been guaranteeing access to the region's raw materials – principally oil, iron ore, soybeans, and copper – to fuel its continued rapid growth. For many countries, there's a downside in the China trade, through which cheap imports have displaced local textiles.