By Mitra Taj and Marco Aquino
LIMA (Reuters) - China's ambassador to Peru warned on Wednesday that it would be disrespectful for the United States to drag Latin America into its trade dispute with Beijing, but told Reuters a potential trade war between the world's top two economies could bolster the region's exports.
Speaking on the eve of the Summit of the Americas that will bring leaders from across the western hemisphere to Peru this week, the ambassador Jia Guide downplayed reports that the U.S. planned to use the event to urge Latin American leaders to work with Washington and not Beijing on trade.
Doing so would show "contempt not just for China but also Latin America," Jia said in an interview, citing Latin America's history of colonialism.
Before the White House announced on Tuesday that U.S. President Donald Trump decided to skip the summit to focus on Syria, a U.S. official told journalists he planned to argue that the United States should "remain the partner of choice" for Latin American countries.
The comments raised the prospect that the trade dispute between the United States and China that rocked markets last week could spill over into Latin America, a resource-rich region where Beijing has made significant inroads.
Stock markets have since risen as Chinese President Xi Jinping has eased investor fears of a trade war by promising to cut import restrictions..
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, an influential Republican on Latin American issues who will be at the summit with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, said he wants the United States to make it clear China's involvement in the region was unacceptable.
Jia said, "actions speak louder than words. He pointed to Chinese trade with Latin America that he said had surged 18.8 percent to nearly $260 billion last year alone.
"China has become the biggest or the second biggest trade partner for a majority of Latin American countries," Jia said. "Every day more Latin American products enter China."
But Jia denied China has any intention of meddling in Latin American affairs, which he said would only risk hurting its ties to the region.
"We truly despise the carrot and stick approach," Jia said in a veiled swipe at Trump's threats to cut aid or impose tariffs on Latin American nations that do not do more to further efforts to create more U.S. jobs and combat drug trafficking.
Jia declined to comment on Trump's decision not to attend the summit, which would have marked the U.S. president's first visit to Latin America since taking office last year, but mentioned Chinese president Xi has visited Latin America three times in the past four years.
Trump's absence from the Summit of the Americas will mark the first time a U.S. president has not been a part of the event since it began in 1994.
In another first, China will be attend the summit as an observer, China's embassy in Peru said.
Jia reiterated China's view that it does not want a trade war with the United States but that it is not afraid of one either. A trade war would hurt global trade, but could deliver some benefits to Latin America, he said.
"If China doesn't import goods from the United States it's going to import them from other countries ... in that sense the disputes between China and the United States could bring opportunities," said Jia.
(Reporting By Mitra Taj and Marco Aquino; editing by Clive McKeef)