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Latin America remains a focus for economic reasons, and updating Sino-U.S. ties is worth a stop in California|
In February 2012, Xi visited the United States and chatted with the American family that hosted him in Muscatine County, Iowa in 1985
Recently unveiled travel plans for President Xi Jinping have put the nation's foreign policy in the limelight again.
Xi will visit Costa Rica, Mexico, and Trinidad and Tobago between May 31 and June 6, and hold a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in the U.S. state of California.
Xi is no stranger to Latin America. In February 2009, as vice president, Xi visited Mexico, Jamaica, Colombia and Venezuela, and in June 2011 he went to Cuba, Uruguay and Chile. The latest trip is proof of Xi's continued, even enhanced, attention to this region.
The reason is not hard to fathom. Given the sluggish U.S. and European markets, robust growth in Latin America is eye-catching.
The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean says the growth rate in the region with 589 million consumers will be 3.5 percent in 2013, indicating a significant market for Chinese export.
China's economic relations with this market have improved a lot in recent years. It is the largest export market for Chile, Brazil and Peru, and the second largest to Argentina, Costa Rica and Cuba. The total trade value between China and the region jumped from US$ 10 billion in 2000 to US$ 241 billion in 2011. Raw materials imported from Latin America, ranging from copper, zinc to iron ore and oil, are important to China's economic growth.
In terms of investment, since 2008 China has become the largest lender to the region. In 2010 alone, China made loans totaling US$ 37 billion to the region, more than those from the World Bank, U.S. Ex-Im Bank and Inter-American Development Bank combined.
Closer ties with China enhanced Latin American countries' ability to weather the global financial crisis. But to many of these countries, trade with China is still marked by deficit. For instance, Mexico's exports to China are less than 10 percent of the total trade; it exported US$ 6 billion worth of goods to China and imported US$ 57 billion.
For Xi, one issue that will inevitably arise during the coming trip is the challenge to balance trade with Latin American. But the region is still a relatively new market for China. Considering the controversies linked with China's investment and trade with African countries, doing things right in Latin America would help China build its image in developing countries.
Economic potential aside, Latin America is also important to China's diplomatic strategy. Since they assumed office in March, China's new leaders have visited countries in Asia, Europe and Africa, with Latin America in the pipeline.
For example, Wang Yi, the new foreign minister, toured Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei in late April and early May. Thailand has always maintained close relations with China. Indonesia is not only a major exporter of resources such as coal and rubber, but also the largest market in Southeast Asia. In addition, it is the only individual country from the region participating in the G20 group. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a group is a member, too. Brunei is the rotating chair of the association this year, an important role that can exert influence over the disputes China has with Southeast Asian countries.
The travel destinations of China's new leaders sketch out a comprehensive and practical diplomatic plan, and highlighted the importance of developing countries in China's global strategy.
Xi's meeting with Obama, the first between the two since Xi took office in March, is to take place in California on June 7 and 8. Neither government categorized it as a state visit.
Indeed, the meeting looks like one of convenience. Xi will be in Latin America and Obama planned to go to California at that time, the White House said. Still, arranging talks before the two meet during the G20 summit in Russia in September illustrates the attention the two governments attach to Sino-U.S. ties, the most important bilateral relations in today's world.
The bilateral relationship goes beyond China and the United States, and influences China's interactions with many countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Speaking with Caixin in April, Cui Tiankai, the new Chinese ambassador to America, said that "China and the United States are two great powers situated on the two sides of the Pacific, and as such, have many intertwined interests which the countries must turn into opportunities for cooperation."
The informal meeting between top leaders of the two countries also has a precedent. In October 2002, then president Jiang Zemin made an excursion to the United States before he attended Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Mexico, meeting with his counterpart George W. Bush at his ranch in Texas.
What will Xi and Obama talk about? The topics will certainly include how the United States and China can work together on the North Korea issue, which has grown increasingly tense in recent months. Cyber security, protection of commercial secrets and intellectual property rights are possible topics as well. Of course, touching base on tensions over the South China Sea is likely, too.
A recent commentary published by Cui suggested that a third party "would be welcome" as a mediator for the territory disputes between China and Japan, but "it would depend on how the third party acted." This is a significant change of tone for China's diplomats, who usually rule out the possibility of getting another party involved in Sino-Japanese territorial disputes. Will Washington be the third party? Xi and Obama can include this in their conversations.