- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2006

BEIJING — Bolivian President-elect Evo Morales yesterday met with Chinese President Hu Jintao and called China an “ideological ally,” a day after he invited the communist country to develop Bolivia’s vast gas reserves.

Mr. Morales’ visit to China came at a propitious time for Beijing, which is eager to develop links with Latin America. China sees nations like Bolivia as new sources of fuel and raw materials as well as new markets for its exports. China imports an estimated 40 percent of its oil, and analysts expect consumption to surge in coming years.

In a related development, Chinese state-controlled oil company CNOOC Ltd. yesterday said it is paying $2.3 billion for a 45 percent stake in a Nigerian oil field in its first major investment since its failed bid to take over Unocal Corp. last year.

Bolivia’s left-leaning president-elect, who is on a world tour that includes stops in Europe and South Africa, told Mr. Hu he made visiting China a priority because he considers China to be a “political, ideological and programmatic ally of the Bolivian people.”

“I have a new responsibility. It’s a new experience for me, so I hope to count on the help of your government and your party,” Mr. Morales told Mr. Hu after the two leaders shook hands and posed for photos at the Great Hall of the People, China’s legislative seat.

Mr. Hu promised to encourage “strong and prestigious” Chinese companies to invest in Bolivia, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The Chinese leader also said the two governments should expand cooperation in technology, medical services and education, the report said.

On Sunday, Mr. Morales met with State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, a senior Cabinet official, and invited China to help with his country’s gas industry after it carries out plans to nationalize its reserves.

Western governments have been alarmed by Mr. Morales’ plans to nationalize Bolivia’s gas resources. Carlos Villegas, an economic adviser to Mr. Morales, said Bolivia wants private companies to remain as partners to develop them and will renegotiate existing contracts after Mr. Morales’ Jan. 22 inauguration.

Mr. Morales, a former Indian activist, said he also hoped to build ties between Bolivia’s socialist movement and China’s ruling Communist Party.

Since his election last month, Mr. Morales has met with Cuban President Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a sign of a growing relationship among the three leftist leaders that has concerned Washington. Mr. Morales’ spokesman, Alex Contreras, called the three countries “an axis of good,” a play on President Bush’s labeling of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the “axis of evil.”

Mr. Morales, who vowed during his campaign to be Washington’s “nightmare,” is willing to visit the U.S. but hasn’t been invited, Mr. Contreras said. Mr. Morales has toned down some of his fiery campaign rhetoric since his election, promising Bolivia’s business leaders that he will create a climate favorable to foreign investment and jobs.

China, as part of its push for links to Latin America, has signed deals to develop Venezuelan oil fields; its investments in the region include a Brazilian steel mill and copper mines in Chile and Peru.

Brazil, Argentina and other nations look to China as a source of investment and markets for their own exports. Beijing has become a regular stop for Latin American leaders traveling with large business delegations.

As the Nigerian oil deal shows, China has similar interests in Africa.

Also yesterday, China’s transport ministry announced it will spend $300 million to repair an 800-mile railway line nearly destroyed in Angola’s civil war. It will reconnect the western coastal city of Benguela to Luau on the eastern border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. The construction will start in a few weeks.

Beijing’s interest is almost purely commercial, said Zhu Hongbo, a professor at the Latin American Research Institute of Shanghai’s Fudan University.

“People should not worry that China is seeking political and military interests there,” Mr. Zhu said, adding that where Beijing develops political ties, it is to “guarantee the economic development.”

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