By Megha Rajagopalan
BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged on Thursday $250 billion in investment in Latin America over the next 10 years as part of a drive to boost resource-hungry China's influence in a region long dominated by the United States.
Leaders of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC - a 33-country bloc that does not include the United States or Canada - gathered in Beijing for the first time for a two-day forum on Thursday.
Xi said two-way trade between China and Latin America was expected to rise to $500 billion in 10 years.
"This meeting will ... give the world a positive signal about deepening cooperation between China and Latin America and have an important and far-reaching impact on promoting South-South cooperation and prosperity for the world," Xi said.
China and Latin America are cooperating on energy, infrastructure construction, agriculture, manufacturing and technological innovation, Xi said.
Deng Yuwen, a Beijing-based political analyst, said China was interested in the region's resources and markets.
"Obviously, China has the intention to compete with the U.S. for a greater sphere of influence in the region," said Deng. "But whether this strategy will weaken U.S. influence now is hard to judge."
Matt Ferchen, resident scholar at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, said China's push would not alarm Washington with improving U.S.-Cuba ties set to boost U.S. influence.
"The reality of economic-social ties, people-to-people ties, between any country in the region and the United States are so much deeper than anything that exists with China," Ferchen said.
"The Cuba deal changes everything in terms of how the United States can set a positive agenda in the region," he said.
China, the world's second-largest economy, is buying oil from Venezuela, copper from Peru and Chile, and soybean from Argentina and Brazil.
In return, China has invested billions of dollars.
On Wednesday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said he had secured more than $20 billion in investment from China, while Ecuador said it obtained a total of $7.53 billion in credit lines and loans from China.
"To repeat what (former) President Hugo Chavez said, China is demonstrating to the world that a country does not necessarily seek hegemony as it grows stronger," Maduro said in a speech.
The cooperation comes despite some in the region retaining diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province. Out of 22 states that recognize Taiwan, 12 of them are in Latin America and the Caribbean.
(Additional reporting by Michael Martina and Beijing Newsroom, Writing by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Jeremy Laurence, Robert Birsel)