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US tensions bring Xi, Putin closer

Manila protests China seizure of Filipinos’ fish catch

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left), and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 8. (AP)

BEIJING, June 9, (Agencies): President Xi Jinping gave China’s first friendship medal to Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Friday as the neighbouring giants touted their close ties amid diplomatic and economic challenges from the US. Xi placed the large golden medal around Putin’s neck at the grandiose Great Hall of the People in front of dignitaries from both countries. China’s “highest honour” is bestowed on foreigners who have made “outstanding contributions” to the country’s modernisation drive and helped maintain world peace, Xi said.

“This medal of friendship represents the Chinese people’s lofty respect for President Putin, and symbolises the profound friendship between China and Russia,” he said. The most powerful Russian and Chinese leaders in decades, Putin and Xi have forged closer ties as US President Donald Trump has labelled both countries economic rivals that challenge US interests and values. Before the medal ceremony, Putin said the two heads of state had enjoyed “fruitful” talks. “The relationship between Russia and China is a friendly, neighbourly one, developing … in the spirit of overarching strategic partnership,” he said.

The two leaders later attended a youth ice hockey game in the coastal city of Tianjin. Analysts remarked on their similar leadership styles. Xi and Putin are “soulmates who want to make their countries great again”, Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told AFP. “Both share scepticism towards American hegemony and distrust US intentions, both are authoritarian personalistic rulers,” he said. Putin was re-elected to a fourth Kremlin term in March.

That same month, Xi was given a path to indefinite rule when the Communist-led rubber-stamp parliament lifted presidential term limits. China is mired in tough negotiations with the United States to avoid a trade war, while Moscow has deep differences with Washington on multiple diplomatic fronts, including Syria and Ukraine. “We both believe that the current trade protectionism has increased, and there are many uncertainties in the recovery of the world economy. Economic globalisation and regional economic integration are the trend of the times,” Xi said.

Putin noted that bilateral trade between Russia and China hit $87 billion last year and rose by 31 percent in the first quarter of this year. “If we are able to keep up this rate of growth we may be able set a record at the level we discussed achieving over the period of several years — $100 billion,” Putin said.

Putin played up his bond with “good friend” Xi in an interview with China’s state broadcaster CGTN this week. He said the Chinese president was the only state leader to have celebrated his birthday with him. Xi “is approachable and sincere”, Putin told CGTN. “But he’s also a very dependable man to work with.” Putin told reporters on Friday that the two leaders had discussed the situation on the Korean peninsula. “It is positive that the inter-Korean negotiations which have begun are moving along the lines of the Russian-Chinese roadmap for resolving the Korean situation,” he said. “Recent Russian-North Korean contacts confirm the willingness of Pyongyang to work constructively,” he added.

Russia supports China’s proposal for a “suspension-for-suspension” approach that calls for North Korea to stop its nuclear and missile testing in exchange for a halt to joint military exercises between the US and South Korea. Putin also said they discussed Iran but didn’t provide details. Maria Repnikova, director of the Center for Global Information Studies at Georgia State University in the US, said China makes Russia look “stronger and more relevant” on the global stage.

For its part, Russia allows China to show the US that it has “other options” in international negotiations, she said. “Trump’s policies justified (the) growing closeness, especially for Russia but also for China given the volatile relationship with the United States,” Repnikova told AFP. But, she said “it’s an asymmetrical relationship with Russia more dependent on China than vice versa, especially in the economic sphere”.

China’s coast guard has continued to seize the catches of Filipino fishermen at a disputed shoal in the South China Sea despite a protest by the Philippines following an earlier incident, two officials said Friday. The Philippines expressed concern to China in a meeting in Manila in February after receiving a report of Chinese coast guard personnel boarding a Filipino fishing boat at Scarborough Shoal and taking some of its catch, the officials said, adding that the Philippines sought compensation for the fishermen.

Chinese officials at the meeting “took note” of the concerns and promised to look into the reported incidents, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. China and the Philippines have agreed to hold such meetings to discuss their disputes in the South China Sea. The Philippines intends to raise its concern again in another meeting with China, possibly in September, due to continuing reports of such incidents, including one reportedly witnessed by a TV news crew on board a fishing boat at Scarborough, the officials said.

Chinese Embassy officials in Manila did not immediately issue any comment. The Chinese coast guard’s reported actions against Filipino fishermen sparked fresh calls for President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration to do more to protect Philippine interests in the disputed waters. After taking power nearly two years ago, Duterte declared he would chart a foreign policy not overly oriented toward the United States, the country’s treaty ally. He took steps to revive frosty ties with Beijing while seeking to boost Chinese trade, investment and infrastructure funds.

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