Region welcomes Beijing's interest because it feels ignored by other powers President Hu Jintao's first visit to Latin America, which begins today, will be warmly welcomed by a region keen for a new global partner to help it become a key economic and political centre, analysts say. The tour would also help Beijing bolster its ties with a region rich in natural resources and close to the US at a time when Washington was preoccupied with Iraq, they said. Mr Hu arrives in Brazil at the start of a 13-day tour that will also take him to Argentina, Cuba and Chile, where he will attend the 12th annual meeting of leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum. Much attention will be focused on Mr Hu's scheduled talks at the Apec summit with United States President George W. Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Jiang Shixue , of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute for Latin American Studies, said state visits were key to Beijing's long-term strategic interests in the region. 'Latin America is very important for China, not only economically, but also politically and diplomatically,' said Professor Jiang. Trade with the region, and particularly with Brazil, Argentina and Chile, was growing dramatically, he said. The mainland's trade with Brazil reached US$7.98 billion last year, up 78.7 per cent from the previous year, while the figure for Argentina jumped 122.9 per cent, to US$3.17 billion, and the Chile total rose 37.5 per cent, to US$3.53 billion. Trade growth is not only expanding the mainland's presence in Latin America but also helping it gain access to resources crucial to its own economic growth. Brazil exports iron to the mainland, Argentina ships oil and gas and Chile supplies copper. Mr Hu is expected to sign a series of economic co-operation agreements and push for the establishment of a regional free-trade zone. The visit will also boost Beijing's emerging political ties with Latin America, particularly with Brazil. President Luiz Ignacio 'Lula' da Silva agreed to become a strategic partner of Beijing during his visit to the mainland in May. The two nations are co-operating in science, space and other projects, with Brazil actively seeking Beijing's support in its bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Professor Jiang said Beijing's closer relations with Latin America were improving its standing in the world by strengthening the so-called alliance of the developing world. The ties also advance Beijing's quest to isolate Taiwan in the international community. Thirteen of the 27 nations that have formal diplomatic relations with Taipei are in Latin America. Cynthia Watson, a Latin America expert at the Pentagon's National War College, said the region welcomed the mainland's presence because it felt abandoned by other world powers. 'China offers Latin America some hope they can interact and get recognition from a major nation since they feel shut out by the US,' Professor Watson said.