China leader signs Brazil deals on Latin America trip

China's president pressed a charm offensive with Latin America on Thursday, signing deals with Brazil and meeting with regional leaders in a trip highlighting Beijing's bid to compete with the United States.

President Xi Jinping was greeted with a military honor guard by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff before overseeing the signing of a raft of agreements during a state visit.

Chinese companies agreed to buy 60 Brazilian Embraer E190 passenger airplanes worth a total of $3.2 billion.

The two countries also reached agreements to cooperate in railway projects and shipping that could facilitate Brazilian exports to resource-hungry China.

The Asian giant's import-export bank will loan $5 billion over three years to Brazilian mining powerhouse Vale so that the company, which ships iron ore to China, can buy or rent vessels.

The two nations signed a cooperation agreement for railway projects, with Rousseff saying she hopes China will help Brazil build tracks linking her continent-sized country to Peru's Pacific coast.

Xi and Rousseff, whose nations marked 40 years of diplomatic relations, then launched the Portuguese-language version of China's Baidu Internet search engine.

"Our relations, which represent a truly strategic partnership, are developing at an unprecedented speed in diverse areas of cooperation," Rousseff said.

Xi said China aims to "strengthen our strategy to create an even more prosperous future for our nations."

- China-LatAm Forum -

The two presidents then met behind closed doors with a dozen Latin American and Caribbean leaders, including Cuba's communist President Raul Castro and the heads of state of Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela.

The meeting was aimed at launching the China-Latin America Forum with the 33-nation CELAC group of Latin American and Caribbean nations.

Xi arrived in Brazil this week for a summit of the BRICS group of emerging powers -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- and South American presidents.

The visit is Xi's second to Latin America since taking office last year, when he toured Mexico, Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago.

This week, the BRICS agreed to launch a New Development Bank to fund infrastructure projects in developing nations and an emergency reserve, drawing praise from South American presidents who see them as alternatives to Western-dominated financial institutions.

- Alternative to US -

With the visit, Xi is presenting China as an alternative to the United States in the region, analysts said.

"China is an option that matches with the leftist political sympathy that it has with some countries in the region," said Rubens Figueiredo, foreign relations professor at Sao Paulo University.

China's massive purchases of commodities and exports of manufactured goods to the region have boosted its two-way trade with Latin America to a total of $261.6 billion last year, according to China's customs.

The world's second largest economy has overtaken the United States as Brazil's top trade partner, with bilateral trade reaching $83.3 billion last year, compared to around $4 billion in 2002.

China's government says it wants to invest more in the region, including in energy and infrastructure projects.

In October, a multinational consortium with Chinese participation won rights to develop Brazil's biggest oilfield.

For its part, Brazil wants to diversify exports to China that are dominated by iron ore, soybean and oil. In a boost to Brazil, China lifted a ban on beef from the South American nation.

After Brazil, Xi will head to Argentina, a key source of soybeans for China, before visiting oil-supplier Venezuela and communist ally Cuba.

Despite China's growing investments in the region, it will be hard for Beijing to dislodge the United States in Latin America, said Yun Sun, East Asia expert at the Washington-based Stimson Center think-tank.

"US-Latin America long-standing, traditional ties will not be easily affected by the Chinese political and economic engagements, which are more recent and less comprehensive than US-Latin American relations," she told AFP.