China elevated diplomatic relations with Colombia to a strategic partnership on Wednesday, deepening a push with one of the oldest U.S. allies to expand its influence and strengthen its foothold in Latin America.

The two countries upgraded their relations as Colombian President Gustavo Petro met his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on a visit to Beijing this week, his first to the world's second-largest economy since assuming office last year.

The upgrade of relations with Colombia means China now has strategic ties with 10 out of the 11 South American countries with which it has relations. Guyana is the only country in the region with which it has ordinary bilateral ties.

In recent years, China has stepped up a charm offensive in South America, Central America and the Caribbean, a region of strategic significance for arch-rival the United States.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, China was the first country that sent vaccines to Colombia. In 2021, in recognition of China's help in fighting the coronavirus, Xi was invited to give a speech, via video link, to the people of Colombia.

Chinese imports from Colombia have sharply risen in the last few years, becoming the South American nation's second-biggest trading partner after the United States. In 2022, shipments from Colombia to China totalled $7 billion, up almost 20% from five years earlier.

Colombia is one of the closest U.S. allies in the region. A middle-income nation and one of the oldest democracies in Latin America, it established ties with the United States in 1822.

It established relations with China in 1980. (Reporting by Liz Lee and Ryan Woo Editing by Bernadette Baum, Robert Birsel)