Xi and Putin — at helm of China-Russia relations

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“For a big ship, a big voyage,” Xi Jinping said, quoting a Russian proverb during his first visit to Russia as president of China in 2013.

He was calling for concerted efforts by China and Russia to build their relationship into a vessel big and strong enough to cleave its way through the changeable sea of international situation.

He practices what he advocates. Over the past six years, Xi has met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin nearly 30 times in an unusually vigorous streak of head-of-state diplomacy, and the two leaders have turned the China-Russia relationship into a big ship featuring the highest degree of mutual trust, the highest level of coordination and the highest strategic value.

“I have had closer interactions with President Putin than with any other foreign colleagues. He is my best and bosom friend. I cherish dearly our deep friendship,” Xi said in an interview with Russian media on Tuesday ahead of his eighth presidential trip to Russia.

As the two countries celebrate the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic relations this year, Xi traveled to Russia on Wednesday for yet another state visit to China’s northern neighbor, where he will also attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum for the first time.

Xi said he looks forward to charting the course of the China-Russia relationship together with Putin and to seeing that their comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination will stride into a new era.

FOR AULD LANG SYNE

The friendship between the two presidents set sail in the early spring of 2013 when Xi arrived in the Russian capital of Moscow for his maiden overseas visit as Chinese head of state.

Besides attending more than 20 activities and meeting with Russian people from various walks of life, Xi became the first foreign head of state to tour the combat command center of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

Putin, who spent eight hours with Xi during the latter’s one-and-a-half-day stay, said the visit was of historical significance.

In one of the most memorable moments of this visit, Xi unveiled at the Kremlin a portrait of Putin embroidered with silk threads in 70 colors. “It’s so legendary, so beautiful and so incredible,” Putin marveled.

“I was wearing the same tie,” Putin joked, pointing to the scarlet tie he was wearing that day.

Long before the historic visit, the two presidents had developed a fondness for each other’s country.

Xi, born in the 1950s, was influenced by Russian literature as much as others of his generation in China. He mentioned Russian writers from poet Alexander Pushkin to novelist Anton Chekhov when delivering a speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

“I found the charm of Russian literature,” Xi said.

Sports-loving Putin is a fan of Chinese martial arts. During a state visit to China in 2006, he visited the Shaolin Temple, the cradle of Chinese kung fu, at the west foot of Songshan Mountain in central Henan Province.

After watching a martial arts show, the Russian president walked into the performers, tossed an eight-year-old monk into the sky and caught him steadily on his shoulder.

UNBREAKABLE BOND

In September 2016, China’s eastern city of Hangzhou was still baking in sweltering heat. Putin, in the city for the G20 summit, gifted Xi with the perfect refreshment — a box of Russian ice cream.

Thereafter, a craving for the Russian specialty took off in China, benefiting a lot of ice cream makers. An ice cream company based in Russia’s Far East city of Khabarovsk, according to its manager, received nearly 100 Chinese importers in three months after the summit.

This was a prime example of how interactions between Xi and Putin have stimulated cooperation between their countries.

“Both President Putin and I have attached great importance to and been actively promoting the cooperation between China and Russia on trade and economy,” Xi said during a state visit to Russia in 2015.

When China decided to host an international forum in 2017 on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a proposal aimed at building a trade and infrastructure network connecting Asia with Europe and Africa along the ancient Silk Road trade routes, Putin was one of the first leaders to accept the invitation. He attended the second forum, too.

Spearheaded by the two presidents, outstanding achievements have been made in synergizing the BRI and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. The alignment has not only promoted regional prosperity, but also signaled to the outside world China and Russia’s commitment to an open world economy.

It is in the same spirit of mutual support that Xi attended the Eastern Economic Forum held in Russia’s Vladivostok and will take the podium at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

What is of more far-reaching significance is that the two leaders have also influenced how the Chinese and Russian people see and relate to each other.

In 2015, when Xi was awarding commemorative medals to Russian veterans who fought on the battlefield in China during the Chinese war of resistance against Japanese aggression, he saw a 90-year-old having difficulty walking.

“Let me come to you,” Xi said to the old soldier. The touching scene aroused in both the Chinese and Russian people vivid memories of the old and deeply rooted friendship between the two nations forged with lives and blood during the wartime.

Based on this very foundation, the two peoples have carried forward their bond from generation to generation.

THINKING ALIKE

In 2017, Putin awarded Xi the highest honor of Russia, the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle the First-Called. Putin said to Xi: “Though you are the leader of a great country, you did not talk much about your own contributions. You are very humble.”

“Many of the key issues between Russia and China either were solved or made progress thanks to your personal efforts,” he said. “The order is a proof of your outstanding contributions to the construction of Russia-China relations.”

A year later, Xi awarded Putin the first-ever Friendship Medal of the People’s Republic of China.

The two presidents’ hands-on leadership in promoting China-Russia relations stems from their common perspective on the importance of bilateral ties and on international issues.

“We share similar views on the international landscape and approaches to national governance,” Xi said in the interview with Russian media. “… Most importantly, we share a high degree of consensus on the strategic significance of the China-Russia relationship and therefore the same resolve and desire to deepen and sustain its growth.”

Putin has stressed on several occasions that it is a priority of Russia’s foreign policy to deepen the comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination with China.

Xi, as early as during his first state visit to Russia six years ago, said China and Russia enjoy one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships and the best of major-country relations.

In his eyes, high-level and strong China-Russia relations not only serve the interests of both sides, but also play an important part in safeguarding the international strategic balance and world peace and stability.

This line of thinking has guided China-Russia interaction within both bilateral and multilateral frameworks. “For many years, both countries have made efforts to improve the global governance system in order to make it more equitable and inclusive,” said Yana Leksyutina, a professor with St. Petersburg State University.

Dmitry Novikov, first deputy chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Russian State Duma, said in a recent interview with Xinhua that the unprecedentedly high-level interaction between China and Russia has become an advanced model of interstate relations in today’s world.

“It would not be an exaggeration to say that ordinary people of the planet look at us with hope and faith, awaiting the creation of a fairer world order,” he said.

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