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China Raises Profile, Concerns in Latin America

China is rapidly expanding its economic activities in Latin America, raising some concerns about its presence in what has been traditionally the American sphere of influence.

The president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno, said economic activity between China and Latin America has multiplied in recent years.

"Exports to China increased by 20 [times] from 1990 to 2005, from just under $1.3 billion to over $26 billion," he said. "Chinese exports to our region exploded by 30 [times] during the 1990 to 2005 period, from just under $650 million in 1990, to over $22.7 billion in 2005."

He spoke recently at the bank's headquarters in Washington, where he gave the keynote address at a first-of-its-kind meeting held to examine the connections between Asia and Latin America.

Latin America, largely because of its exports of oil, natural gas, agricultural products and minerals, enjoys a trade surplus with China.

Carolyn Bartholomew, of the congressional advisory body, the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission, says China's trading patterns raise concerns about the country's intentions.

"There is a growing unease in Latin America, and I think in some places in Africa, about is this essentially just a new form of colonialism, that it is essentially about resource extraction, and it is not about development," she said.

On the security front, Anthony Harrington, former U.S. ambassador to Brazil and president of consulting company Stonebridge International, says Washington should not view China's growing presence in Latin America as a threat.

"I would say most observers, and I would agree, do not see this phenomenon [China's growing presence] as China's looking at Latin America as a base for projecting military and security interests, but rather for trade and investment focus," he said.

He said U.S. trade and investment in Latin America dwarf Chinese economic activity there.

"And there are the natural advantages of geographic proximity and the associated transportation costs," he said. "There is the cultural relationship, and the enhancement of that relationship through the large quantity of migration that occurs in the region. So, the ties that bind are rather strong."

At the same time, Harrington says the U.S. government should spend a little more time in the region and pay a little more attention to its own "back yard."

Singapore's ambassador to the United States, Heng Chee Chan, agrees that as China expands its activity in the Western Hemisphere there will be legitimate concerns.

"I think there is some competition between the United States and China in Latin America," she said. "Whenever a country begins from zero and someone is there, a status quo player will see the new entrant as a competitor."

But she said the spotlight on China is as passing as was the focus on Japan some decades ago.

"There was a period in the 1970s and 1980s, and up to early 1990s, that Southeast Asia was very taken with Japan," she said. "And the world was taken with Japan. And this goes on for awhile, until some new player comes up and attention shifts."

Chile's Ambassador to the United States, Mariano Fernandez said the competition between the United States and China is not a Latin American issue.

"You know, this is an American discussion," he said. "It is an American discussion if China is playing a key role in Latin America, or not."

Fernandez said his country seeks to maintain good, neighborly relations with the United States, while at the same time, develop better ties with China.

"We are adding new complexity, nuances," he said. "And we will emphasize that our relation, developing a good relation with China and with Asia, have nothing to do, in my opinion, with creating an alternative to United States. No, it is just that we are developing, and the world is globalized."

He said China's growing presence in Latin America is still a relatively recent development.