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[BEIJING] Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to increase cooperation with Latin America and the Caribbean Thursday as he opened a forum in Beijing with leaders from 30 countries in the region.
The China-CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) gathering comes as China pushes for more influence in what has traditionally been Washington's backyard, and with many in the area looking to the Asian nation to offset US dominance.
"China will focus on overall cooperation with Latin American countries and this forum will build a deepening discussion," Xi said in a speech televised live from the Great Hall of the People.
"Expanding cooperation discussions at this forum will determine deepening integration with Latin America in the next five years in fields including security, trade, finance, technology, energy, resources, industry and agriculture," he said.
Xi also reiterated a plan first mentioned during a tour of Latin America last year to raise annual trade to US$500 billion within a decade and to increase direct Chinese investment in the area to US$250 billion.
But in a sign that the meeting was not entirely about trade, China's official Xinhua news agency made it clear the country wants to increase its regional influence.
The forum will "offer another chance for China to promote its vision and contribute to international affairs," Xinhua said in a commentary.
"China is seeking a greater say in promoting a harmonious international order." The People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's official mouthpiece, said cooperation between Latin America and China had entered a "new era".
China's trade with Latin America rose to nearly US$242 billion in the first eleven months of last year.
Beijing is constantly on the look-out for resources to power its economy, the world's second-largest, and earlier pledged to invest US$20 billion in oil-rich Venezuela, that country's official AVN news agency said citing President Nicolas Maduro.
Oil has lost more than half its value since June 2014 owing to a glut in global supply and slowing growth in major world economies that has hurt demand.
Analysts have warned that socialist Venezuela - which supplies China, its second-biggest customer, with 640,000 barrels a day - is on the brink of a debt default, struggling to pay its bills while maintaining its lavish subsidies, oil discounts to allies and rigid system of foreign exchange controls.
"We scooped up more than US$20 billion in investment," AVN quoted Maduro as saying after talks with Xi on Wednesday, their third meeting in 16 months.
The sweeping investment deal covers a wide range of areas including technology, housing and urban planning, AVN added.
The president of Venezuela's neighbour Ecuador, Rafael Correa, whose economy has also been hammered by falling oil prices, is also in Beijing for the forum and secured a deal to borrow US$7.5 billion from China, his finance minister said.