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International Relations

Xi-Putin summit in Vladivostok highlights common front against US

China plays prominent role in both Eastern Economic Forum and Russian war games

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, greets his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, ahead of their meeting on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on Sept. 11.   © Reuters

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia -- China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin met in the Russian Far East port of Vladivostok on Tuesday as the two presidents portrayed their willingness to counter Washington's hardening stance against them.

The leaders affirmed their intent to strengthen their partnership on issues including denuclearizing North Korea and countering American protectionism.

"We have established trust-based relations on the political, security and defense tracks," Putin stressed, speaking at the start of the bilateral talks. Xi agreed, pointing out that the Vladivostok summit is the two leaders' third meeting in as many months. He added that regardless of how the international situation changes, they are deepening cooperation by communicating closely.

The two leaders met on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum that began the same day in Vladivostok. Xi attended the forum for the first time. 

China is also taking part in Russia's largest military drills since the end of the Cold War, which are happening at around the same time.

The annual economic conference began in 2015 under Putin's direction and focuses on economic cooperation in the Russian Far East and Northeast Asia. Xi joined this year's meeting at Russia's request.

The forum started on the same day as Vostok 2018, a massive Russian military exercise involving 300,000 troops, 1,000 planes and several warships. China is sending 3,000 People's Liberation Army personnel to take part in the war games, along with tanks, aircraft and other equipment.

The Chinese military has not fought a war since 1979, when it engaged in a border skirmish with Vietnam. Its decision to participate in Vostok 2018 may be a sign of unease among China's leaders about the military's lack of combat experience over the past four decades. Russia can provide China with know-how based on its experience fighting in Syria and elsewhere, military experts say.

The PLA can learn much from cutting-edge integrated tactics used in the drill, said a news organization affiliated with China's Communist Party. Dmitry Peskov, Putin's press secretary, used the word "ally" in August to describe Russia's military relationship with China.

At the latest summit, Xi and Putin affirmed that they would accept a gradual denuclearization by North Korea, unlike officials in the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump aiming to maintain sanctions on the once-reclusive state until it disarms. Putin told reporters after the meeting that Russia and China would continue to bolster political and diplomatic solutions to the issue, and expressed hope that upcoming North-South summit talks would bear fruit.

Beijing and Moscow sent their third-ranking officials to a ceremony in Pyongyang on Sunday to commemorate the 70th anniversary of North Korea's founding.

On the economic front, Xi said Beijing and Moscow would together oppose unilateralism and trade protectionism, in an apparent reference to the U.S. He and Putin also affirmed their intention to link China's Belt and Road economic initiative with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, which Moscow is working to create with former Soviet states.

China and Russia are experiencing a honeymoon as they find common cause against Washington, but tensions remain between the two regional giants, which share a border several thousand kilometers long. Russia is particularly leery of the Belt and Road Initiative: China wants it to run through Central Asia, which Moscow sees as its backyard. Russia may hope that Vostok 2018 drives home its supremacy over China, which has overtaken it economically.

The Global Times, a nationalistic English-language newspaper close to China's ruling party, taunted the U.S., quoting a German media report that said while Western countries had succeeded in setting China and the Soviet Union against each other during the Cold War, the U.S. was now pushing them closer together.

Japan has also historically tried to drive a wedge between Beijing and Moscow but now realizes these two neighbors are growing closer. During his meeting with Putin on Monday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe simply said his government was "paying attention" to the Russian military drills.

On the question of North Korea, Abe said at a news conference with Putin that the implementation of United Nations sanctions on North Korea was "absolutely necessary." For his part, Putin merely said he and Abe had confirmed the need to foster dialogue between North and South Korea.

Japan has been trying to improve relations with China and Russia, but failed to make much progress on sensitive issues, such as its territorial dispute with Russia over islands off Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, and China's development of a gas field in the East China Sea. Tokyo may find it harder to win concessions if China and Russia deepen their budding romance.

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