While U.S. companies and officials may complain about China's high and rising trade surplus, it is south of the Rio Grande that trade is growing most quickly.

Trade between China and Latin America in the first seven months this year exceeded $3.3 billion, customs figures show. Officials expect the full-year total to top 1994's record $4.4 billion.China exported $1.84 billion worth of products to the region from January to July, up 63 percent. Imports from Latin America rose 46 percent in the first seven months to $1.49 billion.

In 1992, China's exports only just topped $1 billion. They were up to $1.7 billion a year later, and $2.45 billion last year, annual increases of 70 percent and 44 percent respectively.

"Latin America is the fastest growing market for China's exports," said Wang Zhiquan, head of the American and Oceanian affairs department of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation.

He attributed the growth in part to rapid development of Latin American economies.

"The technology and price of Chinese products suits the needs of consumers of Latin America, and China has made efforts to improve transportation, which helped expand commerce," he said.

Last year, six Latin American countries imported more than $100 million worth of goods from China - Panama, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Cuba. For the first time, China posted a surplus, $200 million, in its overall Latin American trade in 1994.

China's main exports are light industrial products, textiles, machinery and electronics. It imports iron ore, rolled steel, copper, chemical fertilizer, fish-meal, wool, pulp and leather.

The business remains a small part of total trade for both China - which notched up a global total of $236 billion last year - and Latin America. But officials aim to cultivate what they see as a fertile field.

"If the current growth speed can be maintained, the future for development of Sino-Latin American trade is considerable," Mr. Wang said.

Investment, too, is limited and likely to remain so because neither side has much spare capital to throw about. But Mr. Wang said that China and Latin America are complementary in many sectors as resources, technology and markets.

As of June, China had 160 joint ventures or solely owned operations in 24 Latin American countries with investment of about $300 million. They range

from mines in Peru, through fishing in Chile to pig iron and wood processing in Brazil.

The newly created Export-Import Bank of China is doing its bit by offering export credits to back purchases of machinery and other hardware. The credits in turn are covered by state-owned People's Insurance Co. of China.

Mexico is deemed of particular importance to China's trade planners because of its proximity to the United States and membership in the North American Free Trade Agreement. The latter allows goods made in Mexico into the U.S. market at much reduced duties.

Trade relations between Mexico and China were soured last year when the Mexicans imposed towering anti-dumping duties on a wide range of Chinese products. That was widely seen as a one-off warning shot unlikely to change a generally rising trend of cooperation.