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China's VP heads to Latin America on trade visit

China's Vice-President Zeng Qinghong headed for Latin America and the Caribbean on Sunday on a quest to feed the booming Chinese economy's growing appetite for natural resources and energy.

Zeng will visit Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica, the Foreign Ministry said, as China shows a broader diplomatic interest in a region which for decades has been seen as the United States' backyard.

"China's economic development is facing increasing bottlenecks in energy and natural resources and this must be resolved to maintain China's economic development growth," said Jin Canrong, an international affairs expert specializing in China.

"Objectively speaking, China needs Latin America, and Latin America also needs China," he said.

As Latin America struggles to secure trade pacts with the United States and Europe, the region's exports to China have surged -- 72 percent in 2003 to $10.87 billion from 2002.

Zeng's trip is the latest in a spate of high-level diplomacy between China and Latin American countries.

Over Christmas Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez visited China and in November President and Communist Party chief Hu Jintao traveled to Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Cuba.

In October, China deployed its first troops in the Western Hemisphere when it sent riot police to Haiti as part of a UN peacekeeping mission.

Analysts, however, still did not see China's increasing "soft power" in Latin America as a major issue in Sino-U.S. relations.

Zeng's trip to such an important region for China's continued economic growth also had political significance domestically, with President Hu still trying to consolidate power and his predecessor Jiang Zemin seeking to retain influence.

Zeng, ranked fifth in the ruling Communist Party's elite nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, is an ally of Jiang who wields influence from behind the scenes, mainly through Zeng.

Jiang stepped down as party chief in 2002, president in 2003 and gave up the top job in military in 2004. All three posts went to Hu.

"Although Jiang Zemin has stepped down, I think it shows Zeng Qinghong is still a very important (foreign) policymaker, not only in the field of Hong Kong and Macau," said Shi Yinhong, a foreign affairs expert at People's University in Beijing.

Zeng, who was Jiang's right hand man for years, runs the party's internal policy-making body on the two former colonies.

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