BEIJING (AFP) - Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sunday departed for a visit to four South American countries, including Brazil, to build ties in a resource-rich region traditionally considered the backyard of the United States.
Xi left Beijing on Sunday morning, the official Xinhua news agency reported, with a delegation which includes State Councillor Yang Jiechi, China's leading official for foreign affairs.
On the trip, he will pay formal state visits to Brazil, oil-supplier Venezuela, long-time political ally Cuba and Argentina - a key source of soybeans for China.
The visit - Xi's second to Latin America since taking office as head of state last year - comes as China's trade with the region has surged along with the Asian giant's economic boom, and as Beijing remains on the lookout for resources to power its growth.
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 US$261.6 billion (S$324.6 billion) last year, according to China's customs.
Xi will be stopping on the Greek island of Rhodes on his way, China's foreign ministry said Friday, and will hold talks with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.
He will next attend a Brazil-hosted meeting of the BRICS group of emerging powers, at which he will have his first face-to-face encounter with India's new Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"The presence of President Xi at the meeting will promote the implementation of BRICS cooperation projects, especially the establishment of a BRICS development bank and emergency reserve arrangements," state television reported Sunday, but gave no details.
- BRICS development bank -
The BRICS meeting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa is expected to produce a deal to open its own development bank - a long-discussed move that is intended to rival Western-dominated institutions such as the World Bank.
China's commercial hub of Shanghai is in the running to provide a home for the headquarters of the new bank, officials say.
State media reported the proposed "emergency reserve fund" could be utilised by members in case of financial crisis, while a Chinese academic said the fund would be initially held in US dollars but in future be settled in the currencies of the BRICS countries.
After a BRICS meeting with South American presidents in Brasilia on Wednesday, Xi will launch the China-Latin America forum, highlighting Beijing's growing interests in a region historically tied to the United States economically.
Last month, China sent a representative to Bolivia to participate in the G77 summit, a meeting of leaders of developing nations, even though the Asian powerhouse itself is not a member - a move symbolising China's expanding ties in the region.
Venezuela, a major oil producer, exported an average of 626,000 barrels a day of oil to energy-hungry China in 2013. President Nicolas Maduro said in April after talks with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi that both countries are aiming to boost that figure to a million barrels a day.
China is Cuba's number-two economic partner after Venezuela and is a critical source of financing for the Americas' only Communist-run nation, which is economically troubled and cannot get financing from most lenders.
China and Cuba are "good friends, good comrades and good brothers", Chinese vice foreign minister Li Baodong told reporters in Beijing ahead of the visit.
China also has plans to increase investments in Brazil, where last October a multinational consortium with Chinese participation won rights to develop the country's biggest oilfield.