Chinese President Xi Jinping treated Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to a state visit today as the neighbouring giants forge closer ties in the face of US diplomatic and economic challenges. Putin, re-elected to his fourth Kremlin term in March, arrived at the grandiose Great Hall of the People in Beijing for talks with Xi, who could stay in power for life after term limits were lifted this year.
The two heads of state reviewed a military honour guard and greeted flag-waving children during the welcoming ceremony before retreating into the vast building. The most powerful Russian and Chinese leaders in decades, Xi and Putin have built closer ties while US President Donald Trump has labelled both countries as economic rivals that challenge US interests and values.
Xi and Putin are "soulmates who want to make their countries great again", Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told AFP. "Both share scepticism towards American hegemony and distrust US intentions, both are authoritarian personalistic rulers," he said.
China is mired in tough negotiations with the United States to avoid a trade war, while Moscow has deep differences with Washington on multiple diplomatic fronts, including Syria and Ukraine. Putin played up his bond with his "good friend" Xi in an interview with China's state broadcaster CGTN this week.
He said the Chinese president was the only state leader to celebrate his birthday with him, with the two sharing vodka and sausage. Xi "is approachable and sincere", Putin told CGTN. "But he's also a very dependable man to work with." Maria Repnikova, director of the Center for Global Information Studies at Georgia State University in the US, said China makes Russia look "stronger and more relevant" on the global stage.
For its part, Russia allows China to show the US that it has "other options" in international negotiations, she said. "Trump's policies justified (the) growing closeness, especially for Russia but also for China given the volatile relationship with the United States," Repnikova told AFP.
But, she said "it's an asymmetrical relationship with Russia more dependent on China than vice versa, especially in the economic sphere". After the Beijing visit, Putin will join Xi at a weekend summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in the eastern Chinese city of Qingdao.
China and Russia lead the regional security group, which includes former Soviet states and new members India and Pakistan. Putin told CGTN that the SCO had "small" objectives when it was founded two decades ago but that it was now evolving into a larger global force.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose country is an observer member of the SCO, will also attend the summit at a time when China and Russia are seeking to save the Iran nuclear deal following Trump's withdrawal from the pact.