China’s growing presence in Latin America has not received as much publicity as its interests in Africa, but that seems to be changing with Colombia’s announcement early this week that it intends to work with China to build a multi-bilion-dollar railway through Colombia.

TIME reports today on the effects this new joint venture might have on trade through the Panama Canal and, more broadly American interests in Latin America.

While President Obama this week unveiled a budget that underscored America’s economic malaise, China whooped it up some more in America’s backyard. As if timed to coincide with news that China has passed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy (albeit still a distant second to the U.S.), Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told the Financial Times on Sunday that Bogotá and Beijing are in talks to build a multi-billion-dollar railway connecting Colombia’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Said Santos, in a poke at U.S. superpower self-esteem, “Asia is the new motor of the world economy.”

Colombia, mind you, is the U.S.’s best friend in South America. But it’s also one of the western hemisphere’s up-and-comers, a country that in the past decade has gone from guerrilla-ravaged basket case to a more secure and prosperous showcase — thanks, ironically, to $5 billion in U.S. military aid — and it’s no longer waiting for the U.S. to come through with the bilateral free-trade agreement that’s been lingering in Washington for years. “Santos, like Colombia as a whole, is feeling very confident and just wants to plow ahead,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. Or as Santos told TIME last fall, “South America is a continent that is now surging [and] I think it’s in the interest of the U.S. and us to work together.” But, he added, “Frankly, Latin America has not been on the [U.S.’s] radar lately.”

It’s very much on China’s. In the past 10 years, annual Latin American exports to China have gone from negligible to more than $40 billion as the Asian giant reaches for commodities like oil, copper and soy beans to fuel its roaring economic growth (10% last year). China is now the top purchaser of exports from Brazil and Chile; and according to the U.N.’s Economic Commission on Latin America & the Caribbean (ECLAC), within five years it should replace the European Union as Latin America’s second-largest trading partner after the U.S. In the process, Beijing is lavishing billions of dollars in financing on the region, from hydro-electric projects in Ecuador to development funds in Argentina.

Author: Tim Padgett 
Source: Time
Source Date:02/17/2011
Photograph: Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

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