- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2018

President Trump is staking out Latin America as the next economic battleground with China.

Already provoking a confrontation with Beijing over tariffs, Mr. Trump will press Latin American leaders at a summit next week to restrain trade with China and do more business with the U.S., senior administration officials said Thursday.

“President Trump has been very clear in terms of his economic policies that the Chinese economic aggression in the region has not been productive for the hemisphere,” said a senior Trump official. “We want to be the partner of choice for Latin American partners to work with. We share similar democratic values.”

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Mr. Trump’s stage in Lima, Peru, will be the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of 35 nations in the Western Hemisphere held every four years. It will be Mr. Trump’s first trip south of the border since taking office.

China has been expanding aggressively its economic and military ties with Latin America. Beijing’s trade with Latin America increased from $10 billion in 2000 to $260 billion in 2013.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has set ambitious five-year goals of $500 billion in trade with Latin America by 2019, and $250 billion in direct investment over the same period.

Mr. Trump’s national security strategy issued last December said China was seeking to “pull the region into its orbit through state-led investment and loans.”

China in recent years also has cozied up to Latin American countries that are moving away from democracy, such as Venezuela, which has received major loans and military equipment such as radar and air-to-air missiles from Beijing.

“The hemisphere’s democratic states have a shared interest in confronting threats to their sovereignty,” the U.S. strategy states.

The trade fight between the U.S and China escalated this week, with Beijing targeting key American imports including soybeans, planes and cars in retaliation for proposed U.S. tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese goods. Some analysts say Latin America is caught in the middle, analyzing risks and opportunities.

“The U.S. is forcing countries in the region to choose between the U.S. and China,” Margaret Myers, director of the Latin America and the World program at the Inter-American Dialogue, told Reuters. “It’s putting Latin American countries in a very challenging position while at the same time not offering a particularly attractive policy.”

China is already a top trade partner for countries like Brazil, the world’s biggest soybean exporter.

White House officials are emphasizing this week that the tariffs with China have not taken effect, and will likely remain on hold for about two months while Washington and Beijing negotiate on trade.

“Politicians on both sides of the aisle have allowed China to cheat and operate illegally and unlawfully on the world stage, and this president is the first person to have the backbone and the strength to stand up to China and stand up for the American worker and the American business,” said White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley. “The president’s the best negotiator on the planet. And he uses all means and methods to protect this country and to protect the workers and the businesses in America, and that’s what he’s going to do in this instance.”

The tariffs have roiled financial markets and raised concerns in several economic sectors, especially agriculture. The House Ways and Means Committee said Thursday it will hold a hearing next week to examine the potential impact.

“In enforcing our trade laws, we should always take a targeted approach to address unfair practices while avoiding harm to U.S. workers and job creators,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, Texas Republican and the panel’s chairman. “I am committed to listening to U.S. job creators every step of the way to make sure we make all appropriate adjustments to avoid unintended negative consequences to the U.S. economy.”

At the summit, which begins Friday of next week, the president also will focus on U.S. national security, speaking about “protecting the U.S. homeland and the U.S. way of life.”

As part of that emphasis, Mr. Trump will encourage Latin American leaders to take stronger action to disrupt transnational criminal organizations that traffic in drugs and illegal immigration smuggling, officials said.

Cuba will have a delegation at the summit, but U.S. officials said they don’t expect Mr. Trump to meet directly with Cuban President Raul Castro. Venezuela, a target of U.S.-led sanctions, will not attend the summit.

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