By Mitra Taj and Roberta Rampton

 

LIMA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Latin American leaders arrived in Lima on Friday for a summit that U.S. President Donald Trump decided not to attend, even though Washington hopes to use the gathering to counter China's rising influence in the region.

 

The official theme of this year's Summit of the Americas in the Peruvian capital, where heads of state from across the Western Hemisphere will meet through Saturday, is corruption. Several countries attending also plan to condemn Venezuela's planned presidential election next month.

 

But a heated trade dispute between the United States and China looms over the event.

 

Late on Thursday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross took aim at Beijing's growing trade ties with the region, saying Latin America benefitted more from value-added exports to the United States than rising sales of raw materials to China.

 

Ross told a regional gathering of business leaders in Lima that Washington had no intention of ceding leadership in Latin America to "authoritarian states."

But leaders from Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and other countries will meet in Peru without Trump, after the White House said he decided to skip his first visit as president to Latin America to focus instead on the crisis in Syria.

In the opening speech at a joint business summit in Lima, Bolivia's left-leaning President Evo Morales said the days when foreign powers could dictate terms to Latin America were over.

"Many developing countries and transnational companies think the only thing that matters is making money," Morales said, calling instead for action on climate change. "The structural crisis of capitalism is threatening the survival of humanity itself."

Morales was the sole leftist Latin American president at the summit. Cuban President Raul Castro did not show up and host Peru uninvited Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro last month to pressure him to enact democratic reforms.

But even in the largely U.S.-friendly and pro-business crowd in Lima, many criticized Trump's approach to foreign policy and trade.

"Trump's plan seems to be to ensure the U.S. is no longer the world's leader," Gustavo Grobocopatel, chief executive of Argentine agricultural group Grupo Los Grobo S.A., told Reuters.

Ross said on Thursday it was too early to write off Trump. "This is an administration you should judge by its end results, not by theories about what may be the results," he told reporters.

In his speech, Ross urged Latin American countries to do more to reduce tariffs and red tape, saying regional economies would benefit by exporting more manufactured goods to the United States.

In the past week, Trump has threatened to slap more tariffs on Chinese goods, said he was in no hurry to reach a deal on the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and ordered his advisors to study rejoining the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP in one of his first acts as president. Former President Barack Obama had pitched the agreement as a way to give the United States an edge over China in a fast-growing region that includes large swaths of Latin America.

So far, it has been unclear what might replace it.

On Thursday, Trump's top trade official Robert Lighthizer also canceled his trip to Peru. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who will stand in for Trump at the summit, scheduled meetings that did not include a one-on-one with Mexico's president, dimming hopes progress might be made on NAFTA.

"No one wants to do bilateral trade deals with the United States, and Trump had no Plan B," said Robert Manning, an Asia expert and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Vizcarra will meet one-on-one with Pence on Friday.

In a diplomatic blunder for the Trump administration, the White House initially said Pence would be dining with Peru's disgraced former leader, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, instead of current President Martin Vizcarra.

The White House corrected the error on Friday.

(Reporting By Mitra Taj in Lima and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Additional Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu in Sao Paulo; Editing by Daniel Flynn and David Gregorio)