MOSCOW (Reuters) - Chinese leader Xi Jinping demonstrated the importance of Beijing’s growing ties with Russia on Friday by going to Moscow on his first foreign trip as president and telling Vladimir Putin he was a good friend.
Xi’s choice of destination sent a signal to the United States that the world’s largest energy producer, Russia, and its biggest consumer, China, want to bolster their joint clout as a financial and geopolitical counterweight to Washington.
Putin has long sought to blunt U.S. influence overseas, while China is grappling with the expanded military and economic interest the United States has displayed in its region since 2011.
Xi became the first foreign guest to be met in the Kremlin by an honorary cavalry escort created by Putin in 2002, officials said, underlining the importance the Russian president attaches to the relationship.
Putin, 60, greeted Xi with a firm handshake and a grin, then ushered the Chinese leader down a red carpet past a long line of officials and into the Kremlin’s gilded Green Room. Both smiled and looked at ease, despite the formality of the occasion.
“Russian-Chinese relations are a very important factor in world politics,” Putin said at the start of talks, in which they sat in gold-trimmed chairs. “I am certain your visit ... will give Russian-Chinese ties a new and powerful impulse.”
Xi replied, through a translator, by telling Putin: “I get the impression that you and I always treat each other with an open soul, our characters are alike. We always speak in a good manner, you and I are good friends.”
His remark recalled former U.S. President George Bush’s declaration on meeting Putin in 2001 that he had looked him in the eye and “was able to get a sense of his soul.”
Xi, who took office this month, has met Putin before, including in Moscow. Both countries have increasingly underlined the importance of developing ties which have never quite lived up to their leaders’ billing.
The Kremlin meeting is expected to be crowned with deals that will make Beijing Russia’s top customer for oil, although a long-sought agreement on supplies of pipeline gas to China was unlikely to be signed.
In another sign of the leaders’ intentions, just before Xi’s arrival a $2 billion deal was announced by Russian and Chinese companies to develop coal resources in eastern Siberia.
Putin has said he wants to “catch the Chinese wind in our economic sail” and that desire will grow stronger if China overtakes the United States as the world’s largest economy during Xi’s 10-year term.
Xi arrived in Moscow with first lady Peng Liyuan, a singer whose first step into the international limelight was an instant Internet sensation in China, where her glamorous appearance won her an immediate fan club.
There was no sign, however, of Putin’s estranged wife, Lyudmila. She was last seen at a state event last May, when Putin was inaugurated for a six-year third term.
Xi’s visit overshadowed a meeting between leaders of the Russian government and the European Union that was also taking place in Moscow.
Relations between Russia and China were often awkward during the Soviet era even though Moscow was also then under communist rule - there were fatal border clashes in 1969 - but the two U.N. Security Council members’ solidarity on important global issues has strengthened in recent years.
They have joined forces three times to block Western-backed measures on the conflict in Syria despite talk of grumbling in Beijing, and Russia has followed China’s lead on North Korea - two issues likely to come up in Friday’s talks.
They have negotiated alongside the West on Iran’s nuclear program, but have watered down past sanctions in the Security Council and opposed new punitive measures as counterproductive.
Russia has added to Japan’s woes over territorial disputes with Beijing by playing up its control of an archipelago claimed by Tokyo. Beijing and Moscow have also rejected Western criticism of their record on human rights.
But the lockstep movement on the global stage has not translated into easy agreement on bilateral energy deals, underlining the limits that persist in the relationship.
Xi’s presidency is seen as a chance to put new impetus into business and political relations, although Putin said this week that bilateral trade had more than doubled in five years and reached $87.5 billion in 2012.
But the trade volume is still about five times smaller than Russia’s with the European Union, and also far smaller than China’s trade with the United States.
Like their populations, their economies are uneven. China’s gross domestic product grew 7.8 percent last year, while Russia’s growth was about 3.5 percent and was close to stagnating in February, with 0.1 percent year-on-year growth.
Additional reporting by Thomas Grove and Steve Gutterman; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Erica Billingham