Members of the U.S. Congress are monitoring the growing influence of China in Latin America. Some lawmakers are concerned Beijing may be seeking to erode Washington's influence in the Western Hemisphere.
According to Republican Senator Norman Coleman of Minnesota, who chaired hearings on the issue Tuesday, China's imports from Latin America increased six-fold between 1999 and 2004 and its exports more than tripled. He noted a number of high-ranking Chinese officials have made trips to the region, including two visits by President Hu Jintao.
Senator Coleman said 20 senior Chinese defense officials visited Latin America last year, and China sent 125 peacekeepers to Haiti, the first military operation in the Western Hemisphere with Chinese troops.
The Senator also highlighted China's growing need for natural resources, particularly oil. He noted recent agreements secured by Beijing that would increase oil imports from Venezuela.
Although Senator Coleman said China's influence in Latin America does not appear likely to supercede that of the United States any time soon, U.S. Latin America trade is 10 times greater than China-Latin America trade, for example, he said the situation warrants monitoring:
"China's staggering economic growth and its insatiable need for natural resources, particularly energy, is a global phenomenon that will have an effect in the United States, and one that certainly merits our attention. At a minimum, we must find ways to ensure that American influence in the Western Hemisphere is not diminished by an increasingly active China," he said.
A key State Department official says much of China's interest in Latin America is economically motivated, with Beijing seeking access to natural resources - including oil, to meet the demands of the country's booming economy.
Charles Shapiro, Principal Deputy Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, offered a positive assessment of China's role in Latin America. "We support China's engagement in the region in ways that create prosperity, promote transparency, good governance, and respect for human rights," he said.
Mr. Shapiro says countries in the region also stand to benefit. "To the extent that that trade is taking place in an open manner with a level playing field, to the extent that Latin American countries are wealthier from selling their exports to China, those countries are going to be more stable and they are going, in turn, be better trade partners for the United States as well," he said.
But Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Pardo-Maurer is more cautious. "We must remain mindful that China has its own set of political, economic and military interests, requiring us to carefully distinguish between legitimate commercial initiatives and the possibility of political or diplomatic efforts to weaken the democratic alliances we have forged," he said.
On the issue of China's military cooperation with Latin America, Mr. Pardo-Maurer says there is no evidence that Beijing is interested in establishing a continuous military presence in the region. Nor, he says, is there evidence of Chinese military activities in the Western Hemisphere, including arms sales, that pose a direct conventional threat to the United States or its allies.
But he says there are concerns. "In particular, we need to be alert to rapidly-advancing Chinese capabilities, particularly in the fields of intelligence, communications and cyber-warfare, and their possible application in the region. We continue to be concerned about China's capabilities or activities in these areas," he said.
Mr. Pardo-Maurer made similar comments at a House committee hearing on the subject earlier this year.