Any U.S. policymakers who doubt the strategic and economic significance of Latin America should spend a few minutes chatting with their counterparts in Beijing.

Over the past decade, China has been on a wild spending spree throughout the Western Hemisphere — targeting Brazilian iron ore, Chilean copper, Peruvian zinc, Argentine soybeans, Venezuelan and Ecuadoran oil, Uruguayan meat, Bolivian lithium, and other economic resources. The Chinese have flooded the region with both investment and cheap labor (about which more later). They are funding construction of a hydroelectric plant for Ecuador, a satellite for Bolivia, and much else. Beijing already built a satellite for Venezuela, which launched in 2008, and a national soccer stadium for Costa Rica, which opened this year. In March 2010, the China National Offshore Oil Company announced that it was purchasing 50 percent of the Argentine firm Bridas, and Bridas subsequently bought a $7.1 billion stake in the Argentina-based Pan American Energy. In October, another Chinese energy giant, Sinopec, agreed to invest over $7 billion in the Brazilian operations of Repsol, a Spanish company.

While dollar diplomacy has boosted Beijing’s image in the region, the concurrent influx of low-wage Chinese workers has generated tensions. The Chinese government seems to harbor a quasi-colonial attitude toward developing countries, and its heavy-handed approach has produced a considerable backlash. On the “soft power” side, moreover, the U.S. still holds a significant edge over its Asian rival.

Hopefully, the U.S. will use China’s increased hemispheric activity as motivation to reinvigorate its own engagement. When it comes to Latin America policy, the Obama administration has largely wasted its first 27 months in office. Across the region, as Beijing continues its aggressive outreach, patience with U.S. dithering is wearing thin.