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China premier arrives in Colombia as part of investment tour

China's Premier Li Keqiang, left, talks to Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos, right, during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Bogota, Colombia, Thursday, May 21, 2015. Li Keqiang is in Colombia in an official two-day visit and will then tour Peru and Chile. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Chinese Premier Li Keqiang vowed to deepen economic ties with Colombia during a visit to the Andean nation Thursday as part of his four-nation South American tour aimed at boosting trade and investment.

Li is the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Colombia since the two nations established diplomatic ties 35 years ago and his visit was hailed as historic by President Juan Manuel Santos.

In their first meeting late Thursday at the presidential palace, the two signed deals providing scholarships for 200 Colombians to study in China and mapping a development plan for the violent Colombian port city of Buenaventura where the $17 billion in annual trade between the two countries is concentrated.

Li, speaking to reporters following the meeting, said the two also discussed the possibility of initiating talks aimed at signing a free trade agreement. He also pledged $8 million in aid to help Colombia maintain the peace in war-torn rural areas if the negotiations with leftist rebels to end a half-century conflict succeed.

Colombia has one of the region’s most dynamic economies, with growth that last year far outpaced that of three other countries — Brazil, Chile and Peru — being visited by Li on his regional tour.

But Colombia has lagged behind its South American neighbors in expanding trade with China. In an article published Thursday in the Bogota newspaper El Tiempo, Li said trade with Colombia is just 6 percent of the Asian giant’s overall trade with Latin America.

Even so, China is Colombia’s second-biggest trading partner, the buyer of 10 percent of the country’s exports last year.

Li arrived from Brazil, where he pledged investments of $53 billion over the next six years.

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