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China's Xi seeks to woo Latin America

Chinese President Xi Jinping pressed a charm offensive with Latin American leaders on Thursday, highlighting Beijing's growing interest in a resource-rich region traditionally considered the backyard of the United States.

BRASILIA: Chinese President Xi Jinping pressed a charm offensive with Latin American leaders on Thursday, highlighting Beijing's growing interest in a resource-rich region traditionally considered the backyard of the United States.

Xi was welcomed by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at the Planalto government palace in Brasilia with a military honour guard and a cannon salute before private talks.

The two presidents will later meet with four leaders of the CELAC group of Latin American and Caribbean states, including Cuban President Raul Castro.

Xi arrived in the country this week for a summit of the BRICS group of emerging powers -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- and South American presidents.

"China is willing to combine efforts with Brazil and other countries in the region to become good friends and allies in a shared destiny, and walk in sync," Xi said in a speech to Brazil's Congress on Wednesday.

The visit is Xi's second to Latin America since taking office last year, when he toured Mexico, Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago.

This week, the BRICS agreed to launch a New Development Bank to fund infrastructure projects in developing nations and an emergency reserve, drawing praise from South American presidents who see them as alternatives to Western-dominated financial institutions.

After bilateral talks with Rousseff, Xi will launch the China-Latin America Forum with the CELAC, a 33-nation grouping that will be represented on Thursday by Castro and the leaders of Ecuador, Costa Rica and Antigua and Barbuda.

With the visit, Xi is presenting China as an alternative to the United States in the region, analysts said.

"China is an option that matches with the leftist political sympathy that it has with some countries in the region," said Rubens Figueiredo, foreign relations professor at Sao Paulo University.

"It is looking for a different economic role from that of the United States and Europe," he said.

China's massive purchases of commodities and exports of manufactured goods to the region have boosted its two-way trade with Latin America to a total of US$261.6 billion last year, according to China's customs.

The world's second-largest economy has overtaken the United States as Brazil's top trade partner.

During a preparatory visit in April, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing wants to invest more in the region, including in energy and infrastructure projects.

Last October, a multinational consortium with Chinese participation won rights to develop Brazil's biggest oilfield.

For its part, Brazil wants to diversify its exports to China, with iron ore, soybean, oil and paper representing 80 per cent of it.

Brazilian officials also want to complete the sale of several Embraer planes and convince Beijing to lift a ban on Brazilian beef that was imposed after an isolated case of mad cow disease in 2012.

Rousseff said last week that Brazil was looking to collaborate with China in the construction of railways in the South American nation.

After Brazil, Xi will head to Argentina, a key source of soybeans for China, before visiting oil-supplier Venezuela and long-time political ally Cuba.

Despite China's growing investments in the region, it will be hard for Beijing to dislodge the United States in Latin America, said Yun Sun, East Asia expert at the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank.

"US-Latin America long-standing, traditional ties will not be easily affected by the Chinese political and economic engagements, which are more recent and less comprehensive than US-Latin American relations," she told AFP. 

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