China is building stronger ties with Latin America, in part satisfy its need for raw materials to fuel industrial growth, and in part to strengthen its worldwide diplomatic reach. This has drawn the attention of the United States, which last week dispatched its top diplomat for Latin American affairs to Beijing.
Analysts say the visit by Thomas Shannon, the assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, highlighted Washington's concerns that China is increasing its influence in a region where the U.S. has traditionally been dominant.
Mr. Shannon met for two days in Beijing with Chinese officials in what he said were the United States' first consultations with China on Latin America. He said the Chinese gave him assurances that their intentions remain more economic and less political. Shannon said the Chinese acknowledged that their growing relationship with Latin America has a military component.
"They told us, a kind of primary thrust of their engagement with the region [and] their engagement in the region is economic and is focused on trade and investment," said Shannon.
The commander of U.S. forces in Latin America, General Bantz Craddock, last month told U.S. senators that China's military presence in the region is - in his words - "widespread and growing every day." He said China is sending increasing numbers of personnel for training, as well as what he described as more non-lethal equipment to the region.
General Craddock said more Latin American nations have turned to China for military training because of a U.S. law that bans sending American military training personnel to countries that are signatories to the new International Criminal Court. That includes Brazil and at least 10 others in Latin America. The Bush administration wants U.S. troops excluded from the court's jurisdiction.
Political science Professor June Teufel Dreyer, a China scholar at the University of Miami in the U.S., says China has made its political intentions clear for a long time, and says Beijing's reaching into Latin America fits well with its plan.
"The Chinese government has been worried since the fall of the Soviet Union that the world has become uni-polar. They have been saying for well over a decade now that what they would like is to see the emergence of a multi-polar world," said Dreyer. "So, as they establish these political and economic ties with Latin American countries, this helps China in its goal of establishing a multi-polar world."
It has been relatively easy for China to build close ties with nations with leftist governments - Cuba, Venezuela and - more recently - Bolivia. Their leaders have ideological reasons to embrace China, which they see as a symbol of remaining Communist influence the world.
But for Latin American countries with freer economies, such as Chile, the reason for wanting closer relations with China is trade. In November, China signed a free trade agreement with Chile, Beijing's first with a Latin American country, and discussions are under way with others.
Latin America is rich in the natural resources China needs to fuel its economic growth. The region's exports range from seafood to timber to oil and metals.
China's trade with Latin America has doubled since 2000, to $50 billion a year. Although the figure is much smaller than the $800 billion that the U.S. does in business with Latin America each year, it is growing rapidly. Beijing aims to raise the figure to $100 billion by 2010.
In the case of Mexico, which has a closely interlocked relationship with the United States, there has been resistance to China from some in the manufacturing sector, which is threatened by cheaper Chinese labor costs. However, many Mexican exporters are starting to look for expanded ties with China.
At a ceremony in Beijing marking Mexico's biggest ever cultural exposition in China, Mexican Ambassador Sergio Ley says Mexican exporters are looking to expand beyond their traditional U.S. markets. He says China is a natural choice.
"Simply put, it is the fact that China last year imported $700 billion worth of foreign goods, making it a major buyer. Then, our businesses are looking for niches in this great, great market that is China," said Ley. "We want to take advantage of the opportunities and if Mexican exporters could capture a least a little piece of those 700 billion dollars, we would be very happy."
Ley says there is another reason that exporters in his country, who have traditionally depended on the U.S. market, now look to diversify. He says businesses need to protect themselves from fluctuations in the U.S. economy, which have historically reverberated south of the U.S. border.