By Liz Lee and Ryan Woo
BEIJING (Reuters) -China elevated diplomatic relations with Colombia to a strategic partnership on Wednesday, deepening a push with one of the oldest U.S. allies to expand its influence and strengthen its foothold in Latin America.
The two countries upgraded their relations, first established in 1980, as Colombian President Gustavo Petro met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on a visit to Beijing this week, his first to the world’s second-largest economy since assuming office last year.
The upgrade of relations with Colombia means China now has strategic ties with 10 out of the 11 South American countries with which it has relations. Guyana is the only country in the region with which it has ordinary bilateral ties.
China in recent years has stepped up a charm offensive in South America, Central America and the Caribbean, a region of strategic significance for arch-rival the United States.
The region is also significant to China as it hosts a handful of countries that have no ties with Beijing but instead recognise democratically governed Taiwan as a sovereign state. Paraguay is the last South American nation that has ties with Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory.
During the COVID pandemic, China was the first country that sent vaccines to Colombia. In 2021, in recognition of China’s help in fighting the coronavirus, Xi was invited to give a speech via video link to the people of Colombia.
Chinese imports from Colombia have risen sharply in the last few years, becoming the South American nation’s second-biggest trading partner after the United States. In 2022, shipments from Colombia to China totalled $7 billion, up almost 20% from five years earlier.
The two countries signed 12 cooperation deals during the visit, Petro’s office said in a statement, including one allowing Colombian beef imports from next year and another allowing shipments of quinoa, as well as the establishment of several working groups meant to improve commerce.
Colombia is one of the closest U.S. allies in the region. A middle-income nation and one of the oldest democracies in Latin America, it established ties with the United States in 1822.
Colombia has yet to join Xi’s multi-region infrastructure Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), unlike many of its Latin American and Caribbean neighbours.
Former Colombia President Ivan Duque, who welcomed warmer ties with China and visited Beijing in 2019, had previously expressed a willingness to join the BRI.
On his arrival in Beijing on Tuesday, Petro hailed the potential to increase Colombian exports to China and re-launch the Andean country’s national rail network.
China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) is expected to complete by 2026 two subway lines of the Bogota Metro, a $4 billion project 30% funded by Chinese banks awarded to the CHEC, Xian Metro Company and Canada’s Bombardier Inc consortium in 2019.
Colombia also awarded its RegioTram light rail system project to China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) in 2019.
Chinese state-run mining firm Zijin Mining acquired a gold mine in Colombia in 2019 but the project has faced repeated security issues and road blockades.
Despite loans, investments and offers to build infrastructure, China was asked to import more from South America.
“When we look at the trade balance between Colombia and China, we find a great imbalance, a great inequality, a product of the economic history of the two countries,” Petro told Xi on Wednesday. “There is a huge deficit.”
Among the 11 South American countries that have diplomatic ties with Beijing, Colombia has the largest trade deficit with China despite increased Chinese imports. Colombia had a trade deficit of more than $8 billion last year.
Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Suriname also posted trade deficits with China in 2022.
(Reporting by Liz Lee and Ryan Woo; Additional reporting by Ellen Zhang and Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Robert Birsel, Nick Macfie and Mark Porter)