China works to strengthens ties with Latin America

Burgeoning trade between Latin America and China is spurring Chinese banks to step up their focus on the region, a panel of representatives from three Chinese banks said Tuesday.

The panelists -- speaking at the 43rd Annual Assembly of the Latin American Federation of Banks -- told a lunchtime crowd that it is natural for bankers to pursue opportunities where business is growing.

"We follow our customers, and our customers are going to Latin America in a big way," said John D. Weinshank, senior vice president and head of trade finance and corporate banking for the New York branch of China Construction Bank, which he said is the world's second-largest bank in market capitalization.

The conference of about 1,400 Latin American bankers from 50 countries wrapped up Tuesday at the InterContinental Hotel in downtown Miami.

Language and cultural barriers, differences in business practices and styles, and the sheer geographic distance are all obstacles to trade between China and Latin America, according to the panelists.

Still, the market dynamics are spawning fast-growing ties.

"We need each other: China needs Latin America and Latin America needs China," said Shiqin Li, who heads the New York representative office of Agricultural Bank of China. She predicted "a very bright future" between the two regions.

Signs of the shift are clear: China recently eclipsed the United States as Brazil's top trading partner. The China Development Bank recently finalized an agreement to provide $10 billion in credit to Petroleo Brasileiro S.A., or Petrobras, Brazil's government-controlled oil giant, which has ambitious plans to develop huge offshore oil reserves.

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