MOSCOW • Chinese President Xi Jinping touted a new level of relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday as he embarked on a three-day visit to Russia that highlights a deepening partnership between the two countries as both face growing tensions with the United States.
Mr Xi, according to a Kremlin transcript, said yesterday at the opening of the talks: "Step by step, we've been able to bring our relations to the highest level in history."
Ties now are "at an unprecedented level", Mr Putin said at the start of the meeting.
The talks are focused on trade, investment and energy.
"We confirmed that the positions of Russia and China on key world problems are close, or as the diplomats say, coincide," the Russian leader said after the first round of discussions with Mr Xi, whom he referred to as a "dear friend".
Mr Xi will address a flagship investment forum tomorrow in the Russian leader's hometown of St Petersburg.
Bilateral trade increased last year by about a quarter to a record US$108 billion (S$147 billion).
The two countries' first natural gas pipeline is due to open later this year and China is investing in Russia's Yamal Arctic liquefied natural gas project.
Mr Xi's warm embrace of Mr Putin comes as he is locked in an escalating trade war with the US.
Moscow and Beijing have stepped up their economic and defence ties and are coordinating more closely on major international issues, such as Syria, Iran and North Korea, amid a shared opposition to Washington's global dominance.
China and Russia "have strong political mutual trust, and support each other firmly on issues concerning each other's core interests and major concerns", Mr Xi said during an interview with Russian media ahead of the visit.
Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Hanhui praised the visit as having a "milestone significance in the development of bilateral relations".
Mr Putin's foreign policy aide Yury Ushakov said the visit was "a crucial event for our bilateral relations".
The Soviet Union was the first country to recognise communist-ruled China in 1949, he noted.
China sees Russia as a "large, friendly nuclear-armed neighbour" and as a key source of arms and energy, said Mr Alexander Gabuev, head of the Carnegie Moscow Centre's Russia in the Asia-Pacific programme. Beijing's focus on Moscow has grown since US President Donald Trump came to power with a far more confrontational policy, he added.
Still, Russia needs China much more than the other way round, according to the analyst.
"For Russia, China is a big lifeline, but for China, Russia is not as important as the strategic relationship with the US or Japan," he said.
While constrained by the huge imbalance in the size of the countries' economies, Russia has sought to attract more Chinese investment and trade to compensate for the chill in ties with the West since the 2014 stand-off over Ukraine.
China's share of trade with Russia has almost doubled to 20 per cent since then, at Europe's expense.
About 1,000 Chinese officials and business executives will attend the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, the biggest foreign delegation.
The Chinese delegation is bringing two pandas as gifts, which are bound for the Moscow Zoo.
Mr Xi and Mr Putin will also watch a performance at Moscow's famed Bolshoi Theatre.
The Chinese President will leave for St Petersburg today, where he will receive an honorary doctorate from Mr Putin's alma mater.
BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE