China is expanding its economic and political ties with Latin America, a region traditionally viewed as being within the sphere of influence of the United States. Some analysts say the Chinese move is accelerating as Washington becomes more preoccupied with other parts of the world, particularly in conducting the war on terrorism and Iraq. In this report filed for VOA radio, correspondent Bill Rodgers describes what is driving the Chinese strategy:

Chinese President Hu was in Mexico earlier this month, where he met with his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, and members of Mexico's Senate. The two leaders signed several agreements to boost trade between their countries, and they also agreed to set up the framework for negotiations to allow Chinese companies to eventually mine iron and other minerals in Mexico.

Trade between China and Mexico totals some $15 billion, though most of it consists of Mexican imports of Chinese products.

Mr. Hu's visit came less than a year after he made a widely publicized swing through Latin America, stopping in several countries including Argentina and Brazil. These visits appear to be part of a broader effort by China to secure future sources of oil, iron ore, timber and other commodities from Latin America and to establish closer political ties.

Michael Shifter, a Latin American expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, says China's initiative toward the hemisphere is part of a wider global strategy.

"I think they are finding opportunities here and those opportunities are opportunities that the United States isn't taking advantage of. There is a sense that the United States has looked elsewhere and hasn't really put the energy and effort into taking advantage of the economic opportunities in this hemisphere. I think China has discovered that there may be some interesting ways they can take advantage of them, so I think that's happening but I think this is part of their global strategy as a major power," he said.

Brazil has been especially eager to promote a closer relationship with China, seeing the Asian powerhouse as a promising new business partner. During last year's visit by Mr. Hu, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva predicted trade with China would more than double to $20 billion in three years. There were also expectations China would invest billions of dollars in infrastructure projects. However, Brazilian economists say these investments have yet to materialize and that Brazil finds itself at a disadvantage because it mainly exports raw materials to China in exchange for finished products. While Brazil still has a trade surplus with China, 60 percent of its exports are primary goods like soy beans and iron while imports from China consist of electronics, machinery and other manufactured goods.

U.S. officials point to this imbalance as they play down any notion that China could someday supplant the United States as Latin America's main economic partner. They note, for example, that U.S. investment in the region is $300 billion, compared to China's eight billion. They also point to the recent signing of the free trade agreement with Central America and the Dominican Republic as evidence of the Bush administration's strong continuing interest in Latin America.

Yet there are some concerns. Roger Noriega, who until last week was the State Department's Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, tells VOA, Washington does not want to see China establish security ties with certain countries.

"If there's intelligence cooperation, or an effort to build security relationships, military-to-military relationships, in a way that would be detrimental to our security or the interests of our neighbors in the Americas, that would be a concern for us. We don't see that as a major problem but it's something that we have to pay close attention to," he said.

Mr. Noriega named Cuba and Venezuela as countries which the Bush administration does not want to see establish security ties with Beijing.

China's growing role in the region prompted the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hold hearings on the issue this week, during which some lawmakers wondered if Beijing poses a threat to U.S. influence in the Americas. Administration witnesses played this down, but Roger Pardo-Maurer, a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Defense Department, highlighted the differences between the U.S. and Chinese approach toward Latin America.

"There is something very real out there, which we call the Inter-American system which is undergirded not only by binding institutions between governments, but by ethics and mores, and a common vision of the world. China is not part of that system at all. It's not a democracy, it's not a place where you can speak freely, it's a place whose interests in Latin America are economic. So from that point of view we need to be sure that we are able to work within the Inter-American system so that China is competing on a level playing field," he said.

While China may not pose a threat to U.S. interests in the region, its ultimate aims in Latin America remain unclear - according to Michael Shifter.

"I think what ultimately China's strategic role is going to be is still unclear, whether it's going to be sustainable is unclear, I think it has raised expectations and fed a lot of speculation about what will happen but I don't think anyone has a clear notion of the importance of China: whether it will be political, or economic, but clearly they are an important actor that is new and I think it could force Washington to pay a little more attention to the region. Maybe that would be a good thing because I think there is this traditional notion of seeing Latin America as the backyard of the United States and taking it for granted, and I think that does not correspond to the new realities in the world. And one of those new realities is the significant role of China," he said.

What is clear is that China is likely to play an increasingly important role in Latin America as nations in the hemisphere look beyond their traditional partner, the United States.