Putin in China to cement key alliance

BEIJING - Russian President Vladimir Putin met his Chinese counterpart Tuesday on a visit aimed at bolstering a crucial alliance, with the two neighbours set on blocking international action against Syria.

Putin told Hu Jintao ties between the two nations had reached "new heights" as he kicked off the three-day China visit, his first to Asia since starting an historic third term last month.

Putin will also meet the presidents of Iran and Afghanistan as part of a regional summit during the visit, which comes just weeks after he cancelled a trip to the United States.

But the growing international pressure for action on Syria - a Soviet-era ally that Moscow still supplies with arms - is expected to dominate.

Beijing and Moscow have walked in lockstep on Syria to the anger of Arab and Western nations, with EU president Herman Van Rompuy telling Putin in Russia on Monday that world powers needed to "find common messages on which we agree".

Known for confronting the West repeatedly during his 2000-2008 presidency, Putin pointedly skirted the issue of Syria during a briefing Monday with EU leaders, noting only that "our positions do not coincide on every issue".

Putin has been keen to play up the importance of Russia's at-times uneasy ties with China, which have grown stronger in the past year as both used their veto power on the UN Security Council to block action against Damascus.

"Through the sustained efforts of both sides, the Russia-China overall strategic cooperative partnership relationship has attained new heights," he told Hu.

"Russia-China strategic cooperation is now moving toward a new level," added Putin, who is due to meet Hu's likely successor Vice President Xi Jinping on Wednesday.

China's foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters Tuesday that both Beijing and Moscow were united on Syria, opposing foreign intervention and forced regime change in the conflict-ridden country.

"The position of both sides is clear to all - there should be an immediate end to violence and the political dialogue process should be launched as soon as possible," he said.

"China and Russia share the same position on these points and both sides oppose external intervention into the Syrian situation and oppose regime change by force."

Although the two nations had periodic border conflicts and viewed each other with suspicion in Soviet times, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared this weekend that Russia had an exemplary partnership with China on foreign policy.

Kremlin foreign policy aide Yury Ushakov said last week the two countries planned to sign 17 diplomatic and business agreements that should help support booming trade, which reached $80 billion (64 billion euros) last year.

The Russian delegation includes six cabinet members, the heads of Russia's energy giants Gazprom, Rosneft and Transneft, and "all the major names of Russian business", Ushakov said.

While energy is high on the agenda, a long-awaited gas deal that could see Russia supply 70 billion cubic metres of gas a year directly to China will not be signed due to pricing disagreements, Gazprom said on Monday.

In his People's Daily article, Putin said Russia hoped to export "great quantities" of natural gas to China in the near future.

"Our joint projects practically change the entire configuration of the global energy market," he said.

Among other reported deals to be inked during the visit is a joint project to develop a new long-haul aircraft by Russian company Ilyushin and China's Comac.

Putin is a frequent guest of Chinese leaders, last visiting Beijing in October in his then capacity as prime minister. It was his only foreign trip after he announced in September his plan to run again for president.

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