Putin welcomes China's Xi for landmark talks aimed at cementing relations

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's new leader Xi Jinping are to hold landmark talks on Friday in the hope of further cementing the two countries' partnership with a range of economic and strategic agreements.

The Chinese leader chose Russia for his first trip abroad after China this month completed a power handover which will see Mr Xi preside over the world's second-largest economy for the next decade.

"China and Russia are the main and most important strategic partners," Mr Xi said in an interview with Russian media, adding that he was looking forward to his meeting with Mr Putin.

"In many ways we speak a common language," he said on the eve of his Moscow trip.

Experts say the two leaders will use the hugely symbolic talks to try and map out a cooperation plan for the next 10 years.

"Essentially we are talking about a new epoch in relations between Russia and China," said Dr Sergei Sanakoyev, a veteran China expert with links to the Russian government.

Once bitter foes during the Cold War, Moscow and Beijing have over the past years ramped up cooperation as both are driven by a desire to counterbalance US global dominance.

At the United Nations Security Council, China and Russia have both vetoed resolutions to slap sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which is locked in a two-year conflict with the opposition.

Both Syria and North Korea are set to be high on the day's agenda. But the economy is expected to be at the forefront of the talks between Russia, the world's largest energy producer, and China, the world's largest energy consumer.

Mr Putin and Mr Xi are expected to oversee the signing of a number of energy and investment agreements.

Russia, which wants to diversify its energy markets away from Europe, 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.

The Russian state's natural gas giant Gazprom is likely to sign some sort of agreement although not a firm contract, said company spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov. "This is for later," he told AFP.

The commercial contract has so far proved elusive as talks have become mired in pricing disagreements.

Dr Sanakoyev said Russia's biggest oil company Rosneft may sign an agreement to double supplies to China from the current 15 million tonnes a year. A Rosneft spokesman declined to comment.

Dr Sanakoyev, general secretary of the Russia-China Chamber for Promotion of Trade in Machinery and Innovative Products, said the two countries will also sign a preliminary agreement allowing Chinese companies to help develop Russia's remote Far East.

"We are talking about attracting financing in the amount of US$5 billion (S$6.3 billion)," he told AFP, adding that projects would range from road construction to telecoms.

"Economic projects will reinvigorate our ties which have stagnated over the past few years." Mr Dmitry Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said China would also seek to strengthen overall relations to boost its international standing.

China's "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."

Mr Putin and Mr Xi first met in 2010 when the Chinese leader, then in the rank of vice-president, travelled to Moscow for talks.

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

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