BEIJING - China has awarded its highest state honour to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a move that experts say signals the close relationship between the two countries at a time that ties of both with the United States are under strain.
The Friendship Medal of the People's Republic of China was presented to Mr Putin personally by Chinese President Xi Jinping in a grand ceremony held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Friday (June 8).
Mr Putin arrived for a three-day state visit during which he will attend the Qingdao Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on the weekend.
Both he and Mr Xi also held talks in the Chinese capital, where they hailed the close ties between their countries and discussed the upcoming US-North Korea summit, as well as the Iran nuclear deal.
Mr Xi told media after their meeting that both he and his Russian counterpart felt "the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership is mature, firm and stable".
"It is the highest-level, most profound and strategically most significant relationship between major countries in the world," said Mr Xi.
On the June 12 summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, Bloomberg reported Mr Putin said both Russia and China agreed on the need for peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Both leaders also issued a joint declaration pledging to preserve the international accord on Iran's nuclear programme which the US withdrew from last month.
This is Mr Putin's first visit this year to China, which Beijing billed as "boasting great significance in planning the future course of China-Russia relations".
During the medal presentation ceremony on Friday, Mr Xi, noting that since 2000, Mr Putin has visited China 19 times, called the Russian President an old friend to the Chinese people, and also his "best friend".
It was the first time China has awarded the medal since it was established in 2015. It can only be conferred on a foreigner who has made outstanding contributions in promoting exchange and cooperation between China and the world, and in maintaining world peace.
Experts said the award was a clear sign that both countries were growing closer amid increasing pressure from the US.
In December last year, the US labelled both countries strategic rivals that challenge US interests and values.
China is currently locked in an ongoing trade dispute with the US, which has also imposed tough sanctions on Russia.
Associate Professor Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said China and Russia had been cooperating since the late 1990s as they "responded to quite similar pressures from the West".
"For China, its best friend has always been Russia, and for Russia, China is a strategic partner, so this award is really a reflection of the special relationship that has existed for a few decades," he said.
Professor Zhu Feng, director of Nanjing University's Institute of International Studies, also said the award was a clear signal to the US that if it increased pressure on both countries, it would mean both China and Russia would have no choice but to increase cooperation so they can jointly deal with Washington.