CHILE - Ms Xiao Qiong, 28, stares intently at a group of Chilean teenagers, smiles and says with conviction: 'Ni hao!'
The disheveled boys and girls in front of her post exaggerated grins and reply in raucous but near-perfect unison, 'Ni hao', Mandarin for 'hello'.
The Beijing native, petite by comparison with many of her students, is the advance guard in China's patient push for access to South America's mineral resources.
The Mandarin classes were written into a free trade accord signed between Chile and China in 2006. While China has its eye on Chilean copper, for Chile the accord is a chance to become Latin America's gateway to the Asia-Pacific region.
Luna (Moon), as she calls herself in Spanish, uses song, dance and romantic tales of Chinese youth to help motivate her students at the Liceo Jose Vergara, a rough-edged public school in the shanty-clad cliffs that fringe the wealthy Pacific resort of Vina del Mar.
'Chilean children are very free, but very lovely and very friendly,' Ms Luna, said outside the school.
China has been gaining an economic foothold in Latin America for about a decade, as the United States focused on other areas, establishing cultural and commercial ties in countries that supply the commodities it needs to maintain growth.
Just as it has on the African continent, China is maneuvering in Latin America to secure the raw materials it needs to build roadways, railways and even cities.
Its top trade partners in Latin America are Brazil, Argentina and Chile, major suppliers of grains and metals.
'It has managed to expand its diplomatic presence very dramatically at a time when the US diplomatic presence is being reduced,' said Mr Riordan Roett, director of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
It's no surprise that China is working hard on its relationship with Chile, the world's biggest source of copper, which is used in everything from electrical wiring, plumbing, heating, air conditioning and roofing.
'They have certainly been laying the groundwork for a long-term relationship,' said Mr Alberto Canas, who overseas trade with China for the Chilean government.
Chile was the first country in the region to support China's entry into the World Trade Organisation and the only one with a trade agreement with China.
China is poised to either match or outpace the United States as Chile's top trade partner in 2007, with around US$15 billion (S$21.5 billion) in trade, compared with US$8.5 billion last year.
Chile-US trade last year was worth US$14.5 billion.
Analysts say China is also courting Latin America as part of its growing emphasis on so-called 'south-south' diplomacy with the Group of 20 developing nations.
The students at Liceo Jose Francisco Vergara are looking to their own future.
'Getting to China is a dream I have, because that is where everything I want to learn is,' said Christian Altamirano, 14, a robotics buff in a frayed T-shirt who is one of Luna's star pupils.
'I would like to go there and learn their culture, their language, and meet the people and exchange ideas and then bring that knowledge back here,' he said.
Ricardo Camus, 17, another of Ms Luna's students, sees the Mandarin program as his ticket to a more prosperous future and expects to get work as a translator as trade builds with China.
'I see my future rising before me and I want to bet on it.' The Mandarin program is still small, with about 60 students in three public schools, but education officials say they want to expand it quickly, adding at least three more schools in March.
At least 20 Chilean universities are already offering Mandarin courses, as are many private language schools. -- REUTERS
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