BEIJING - Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged support for Russia and its "core interests", even though it appears China had misgivings about the war in Ukraine.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin acknowledged these doubts as he met Mr Xi in person for the first time since February, when the two leaders declared a "no-limits" partnership that alarmed the US and its allies.
Moscow understood that Beijing had "questions and concerns" about the war, Mr Putin said in opening remarks across the table from Mr Xi in a meeting held on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan.
"We highly appreciate the balanced position of our Chinese friends in connection with the Ukrainian crisis," he said, while assuring Mr Xi he will explain his position during their meeting.
Beijing has come under fire for refusing to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but instead heaping blame on the US and Nato for forcing Mr Putin into a corner with the military alliance's growing footprint.
In a Chinese readout of the meeting, Mr Xi told his Russian counterpart that China will work with Russia "to extend strong mutual support on issues concerning each other's core interests", and notch up trade and other areas of cooperation.
But the Chinese leader stopped short of mentioning Ukraine in the statement, while also taking the opportunity to project an image of his country as a responsible global power.
"In the face of changes in the world, times, and history", said Mr Xi, China was willing to work with Russia "to demonstrate the responsibility of a major country, play a leading role, and inject stability into a turbulent world".
China's top leaders have in recent days publicly expressed unambiguous support for Russia, even as Russian troops suffer major setbacks against the Ukrainian army.
The country's No. 3, Mr Li Zhanshu, blamed the US and Nato for pushing its expansion to Russia's doorstep, which he said threatened Russia's national security and the lives of its citizens.
"Given the circumstances, Russia has taken necessary measures. China understands, and we are coordinating on various aspects," he said while on a visit to Russia last week.
China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi, too, told Russian ambassador Andrey Denisov in Beijing on Monday that China would work with Russia to "safeguard common interests and promote the development of the international order in a more just and reasonable direction".
While Beijing has said it has not provided military aid to Moscow, Chinese goods have helped sustain Russians' way of life amid sweeping sanctions by multiple countries. China has also ramped up its import of Russian oil in the past months.
The SCO summit - held ahead of a potential meeting between Mr Xi and US President Joe Biden at the G20 summit in November - allowed both China and Russia to show strength in solidarity in an alternative, non-western-led multilateral setting.
Formed in 2001 as a political, security and economic alliance to counter Western blocs, the SCO's other permanent members are India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
While vocal in his support for Russia, Mr Xi also has to balance that delicately with relations with the other Central Asian states in the SCO group, some of whom have deep apprehensions about Russian action in Ukraine.
In a diplomatic signal, he urged Mr Putin to engage in multilateral frameworks such as the SCO to "promote solidary and mutual trust among all parties", and to safeguard the region's security interests.
The US, meanwhile, has asked China not to support Russia in its aggression against Ukraine.
"We don't think anybody should be on the sidelines," said White House spokesman John Kirby in a television interview on Thursday.
"The whole world should be lined up against what Mr Putin is doing."