MOSCOW – China's new president received a lavish welcome Friday as he made Moscow his first foreign destination, joining with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a pointed attempt to counter U.S. influence in Asia.
Xi Jinping, who became president just last week, urged Russia to improve its foreign policy coordination to protect the two neighbors' joint security interests – comments that appeared to seek Russia's backing for his eagerness to reduce U.S. influence and challenge Japan over a set of disputed islands.
Xi was greeted by Putin at a grandiose reception that saw guards on horseback welcoming a foreign leader for the first time in recent memory. The pomp underlined just how close ties between the two Cold War-era rivals have become thanks to their energy needs and a shared aspiration to curtail U.S. power around the world.
After the talks, Russian and Chinese officials signed agreements on deliveries of Russian oil and gas to China.
Kremlin guards snapped at attention as Xi and his long retinue walked into the gilded, chandeliered Grand Kremlin Palace. The two leaders greeted members of official delegations in the ornate St. George Hall before sitting down for talks.
Putin described the ties between the two countries as an "extremely important factor in global politics" and said Moscow "greatly appreciated" Xi's decision to make Russia the first country he visited as China's new leader.
The visit by Xi, who became Communist Party chief in November, followed a tradition of the two nations' leaders paying inaugural visits to each other.
Putin told the ITAR-Tass news agency that relations between Moscow and Beijing were helping to "shape a new, more just world order." He added that Russia and China have shown a "balanced and pragmatic approach" to international crises — an apparent reference to their lockstep opposition to U.N. sanctions against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
Xi, in turn, pointedly told Putin that he expects Russia to "strengthen coordination and interaction in tackling international and regional issues to ensure our common strategic security."
"We must emphasize further increasing our mutual political support and resolutely back each other's efforts to protect sovereignty, security and development interests," Xi said.
Two academics – Douglas H. Paal and Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Endowment – said in an analysis that China may be trying to woo Moscow to Beijing's side in its quarrel with Japan and trying to prod Russia to cooperate more actively against the U.S.-led missile shield in northeast Asia.
They predicted, however, that Russia is unlikely to show much enthusiasm for the plan, as it wants to normalize relations with Tokyo and doesn't share the Chinese grievances about U.S. missile defenses in the Pacific region. Still, they said, Moscow and Beijing are interested in nurturing close ties.
"For China, Putin personally can be relied upon to keep an arm's length from Washington and to promote a multipolar world, not one dominated by the United States," they said. "Demonstrating Sino-Russian cooperation serves the interests of both in offsetting American power and influence."
Friday's talks focused on energy as China looked to secure supplies from Russia, the world's biggest energy producer, as part of its strategy to reduce its dependence on sea routes.
Russia's state-controlled Gazprom natural gas giant and China's CNPC signed a memorandum on building a new gas pipeline to China, inching closer to a deal that has been on the table for years amid fierce price disputes.
Gazprom's CEO Alexei Miller said the two companies agreed to sign a contract by the year's end for annual deliveries of 38 billion cubic meters of gas starting in 2018, with an option of eventually increasing the volume to 60 billion cubic meters. He wouldn't say whether the parties have reached agreement on a pricing formula, the main bone of contention.
CNPC also signed an agreement with Russia's state-controlled Rosneft, the world's largest oil company by production, for crude exports to China.
Rosneft's CEO Igor Sechin said deliveries may reach 31 million metric tons of oil a year, adding that Rosneft plans to attract a $2 billion loan from China for future oil shipments. Rosneft would also invite CNPC to tap offshore oil deposits in the Barents and Pechora Seas, he said.
Bilateral trade has been steadily growing, reaching $88 billion last year, yet it is still a fraction of China's trade with the United States and the European Union. Putin said the two nations hope to boost it quickly to $150 billion a year.
Trade in arms has slackened in recent years as China, which was the No.1 importer of Russian weapons in the 1990s, has built up its own arms industry largely through cloning Russian weapons.
But China so far has failed to copy some key Russian technologies, particularly in building aircraft engines, and has shown a renewed interest in ramping up its purchases from Russia. Russian arms officials say they have recently signed a tentative deal with China to deliver of a batch of Russian Su-35 fighter jets.