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US and China to launch Latin America dialogue

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Mar 22: The United States, wary of potential ''crossed wires'' as China steps up its involvement in Washington's traditional sphere of influence in Latin America, plans to start a dialogue with Beijing on the issue.

Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, who oversees Latin American affairs, yesterday said he would visit Beijing in early April, ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington later in the month.

Shannon said the goal of his trip to China was to get a better idea of ''how they feel about the Caribbean and the Americas.'' He told reporters traveling with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Bahamas for a meeting of Caribbean foreign ministers that he would also go to Japan and South Korea.

''We're going to begin a series of conversations that will allow us to understand what the other is up to in the region, to make sure we don't get our wires crossed,'' said one official who is involved in organizing the talks with China but was not authorized to speak for the record.

China's quest for oil to meet surging energy demands and commodities for other areas of its economy are propelling expanding trade with Latin America. Chinese interests have included bids for Venezuelan oil, Chilean copper and soybeans from Brazil and Argentina.

The United States has long been closely involved in the region politically and economically -- despite periodic resentment in Latin America countries at the domineering presence to the north.

In an interview with Reuters, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick said that as its economic power grows, China wants a greater role in the world but is ''trying to proceed in a way that avoids antagonism.'' While they have growing economic interests in Latin America, the Chinese ''don't want to be perceived in the US as a threat in Latin America because that would be counterproductive,'' he said.

China's courtship of Venezuela, the world's No. 5 oil exporter, worries some in Washington given that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is one of President George W Bush's fiercest critics and has ties with Cuba and Iran, both longtime foes of Washington.

A White House report on security strategy released last week described Chavez as a ''demagogue'' who uses Venezuela's oil wealth to destabilize democracy in the region.

While China imports small quantities of Venezuelan oil, a congressionally-mandated group, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, has warned ''this development may eventually affect the U.S. oil market, which now absorbs two-thirds of Venezuela's oil exports.'' The White House report accused China of ''expanding trade but acting as if they can somehow 'lock up' energy supplies around the world or seek direct markets rather than opening them up.'' The US official who spoke anonymously predicted that Venezuela would not be the most important part of Shannon's talks and said the new dialogue aimed to ensure that Washington and Beijing understood each other's interests in the region.

This includes talking about US efforts to promote democracy and to link democracy reforms with development assistance, he said.

US officials say Chinese arms sales to Latin American countries could be a problem. They said Shannon was expected to stress Washington's desire to see transparency and accountability in weapons deals.


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