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Last Updated: Monday, 3 April 2006, 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK
Chinese influence in Brazil worries US
By Humphrey Hawksley
BBC Newsnight, Sao Paulo

While the United States has been fighting its war on terror, a new political idea has begun to punch through with such weight that alarm bells have begun ringing loudly in Washington.

Under the slogan of "peaceful rising", China is selling itself to the developing world as an alternative model for ending poverty.

Workers in Brazil
China: an alternative model for ending poverty?
The pitch is now winning an audience in Latin America, and Washington is despatching the assistant secretary of state responsible for the region, Thomas Shannon, to Beijing to find out what is going on.

His aim is to negotiate the precise line which China must not cross in creating its new strategic alliance with Latin America, which has seen billions of dollars of Chinese money earmarked for infrastructure, transport, energy and defence projects there.

"We want to make sure we don't get our wires crossed," said one official arranging the talks.

The spectre of an encroaching China is made worse by a string of elections which has produced populist and US-sceptic, left-wing leaders. During the Cold War they would probably never have survived in office.

The latest may be retired army commander Ollanta Humala, who is leading the opinion polls in the Peruvian presidential election due on 9 April.

"We're concerned about the leftist countries that are dealing with China," says Congressman Dan Burton, the Republican chairman of the sub-committee on the Western Hemisphere.

"It's extremely important that we don't let a potential enemy of the US become a dominant force in this part of the world."

'Alliance of giants'

While China pleads innocence, more and more voices in Washington are chastising President George W Bush for failing to act as decisively against China.

Every thing I do is with China now
Priscila Marques
Businesswoman
"As a nation we need to understand that this Communist dictatorship is a government without a conscience," says Senator Lindsey Graham who has recently been to China.

"The status quo cannot be accepted and tolerated by this country any more than the Soviet Union's practices were tolerated by Ronald Reagan."

In Brazil itself, the view is very different. It is about two developing countries, the giants of their regions, forming a natural alliance.

"It's wonderful. It's amazing," says Alexandre Solis, an aircraft engineer who spent more than two years in the Chinese city of Harbin, setting up a joint venture for the ultra hi-tech Brazilian Embraer commuter jet company.

"They wanted all the information we could give them because they are determined to be best in the world."

'Nowhere else'

The flurry of China-Brazil business began less than two years ago after an exchange of visits between Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Charles Tang
[China] has achieved the greatest victory in the history of human rights... It has removed 400m Chinese people from poverty
Charles Tang
Brazil-China Chamber of Commerce
Since then China's influence can be seen everywhere in Latin America: oil, gas, railways, ports, steel and - worryingly for the US - defence.

In Sao Paulo, Chinese language classes are packed. Not only are students taught how to speak Mandarin, but they are also guided in cultural habits such as attending banquets and singing Chinese folk songs.

"Everything I do is with China now," says one student Priscila Marques, who runs a freight forwarding company. "It's Brazil-China; nowhere else."

The nub of Mr Shannon's Beijing visit, however, is to determine how much can be put down to simply business and how much China plans to export its own political system and power.

"The Chinese government has achieved the greatest victory in the history of human rights," says Charles Tang, who heads the Brazil-China Chamber of Commerce and who has been behind many of the joint-venture initiatives.

"It has removed 400 million Chinese people from poverty and enabled them to live with dignity and take part in economic life. That is the true measure of human rights.

"Brazil should analyse why China grows so much and Brazil so little."

Monroe doctrine

Washington's political protectionism of Latin America dates as far back as 1823 when President James Monroe decreed that no foreign power would have more influence there than the US itself.

Tom Shannon
Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon is off to Beijing
The Monroe Doctrine was last used in earnest during the Cold War, when just about every Latin American country which veered to the left - from Chile to Nicaragua - experienced some form of US intervention.

This time, as China gathers confidence, ideological debate will be over which political system - Western democracy or Chinese authoritarianism - delivers more people from poverty, and whether freedom should be measured in terms of wealth or elections.

In Beijing and Washington it might be viewed as a contest of ideas, but on the ground in Latin America it could turn into something darkly familiar.

"We should always look at Latin America in relation to the Monroe Doctrine," says Congressman Burton.

"There already are [Chinese] military exchanges and hardware being sold - or given to Latin American countries. You can rest assured the US is going to do everything it can to make sure this hemisphere is safe."

Humphrey Hawksley's report from Brazil is part of Newsnight's Inside Latin America season, and can be seen on Tuesday at 2230 on BBC Two.


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