China president makes Russia first foreign stop

BEIJING (AFP) - China's Xi Jinping heads to Russia this week for his first diplomatic foray as president, reinforcing a relationship with Cold War roots which is now finding shared strategic and business interests.

Mr Xi, whose ascension last week completed China's power handover after he took the reins of the Communist Party in November, visits Moscow from Friday for talks with President Vladimir Putin.

The two countries enjoy expanding commercial relations - China is the world's biggest energy consumer and the largest trade partner of Russia, one of the planet's biggest oil producers.

They cooperate on several issues at the United Nations and in advance of his trip, Mr Xi called Russia "our friendly neighbour", adding his visit underscored the "great importance" China placed on relations.

Chinese vice-foreign minister Cheng Guoping said on Wednesday that the two were "committed to the development and revival of each other's countries", adding the world situation was unstable and "hegemony, power politics and new interventionism are on the rise".

Modern relations between Beijing and Moscow have their roots in shared communist ideology. China and the then-Soviet Union split in the early 1960s, but ties improved shortly before the USSR collapsed.

Russia was also the first overseas destination for Hu Jintao, Mr Xi's predecessor as president, when he ventured abroad in 2003.

Previous leader Jiang Zemin trained in the mid-1950s at the Stalin Automobile Works in Moscow.

At the UN Security Council, China and Russia have vetoed resolutions to introduce sanctions against Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, which has been ravaged by a two-year conflict.

Both countries have spoken out against US and European Union sanctions targeting oil exports from Iran, which is suspected of seeking to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of a peaceful civilian programme.

But Moscow and Beijing supported a Security Council resolution this month that increased sanctions on North Korea over its third nuclear test.

Both Syria and North Korea are expected to be a focus of the Xi-Putin talks and Dr Dmitry Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said China will seek to strengthen overall relations to boost its international standing.

"Its ties with the United States are complicated, there is a flare-up in relations with Japan, things with India are not easy," he told AFP. "They will benefit from sending the world a signal about good, strong ties with Russia." But business will be at the forefront, he added. "The Chinese are practical, for them the economy tops everything."

Chinese commerce ministry spokesman Shen Danyang described Mr Xi's trip as "an active push to speed up the pace of investment and cooperation". Mr Shen said bilateral trade was a record US$88.2 billion (S$110 billion) last year, up 11.2 per cent on 2011.

In Moscow, the Kremlin said Mr Putin and Mr Xi would oversee the signing of a number of agreements but gave no details.

Russia needs to finalise a potentially huge gas deal which could eventually see almost 70 billion cubic metres of gas pumped to China annually for the next 30 years, and vice foreign minister Cheng said "intensive discussions" were under way.

Both countries are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation - along with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - which focuses on regional issues including anti-terrorism.

Russia and China are also members of the BRICS grouping of emerging economies, which is rounded out by Brazil, India and South Africa and will hold a group summit in South Africa next week.