Chinese leader Xi Jinping is on a three-day state visit to Russia aimed at underscoring Russian-Sino cooperation — and his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin — in the face of strained relations with the United States.
"In the past six years, we have met nearly 30 times," said Xi of the Russian leader.
"Russia is the country that I have visited the most times, and President Putin is my best friend and colleague," added Xi.
While ostensibly timed to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties, the state visit comes as both leaders bristle over their treatment by the U.S., which has levied sanctions against Russia since 2014 and currently is engaged in a trade war with China.
"People generally tend to go to the places where they are liked," said Mikhail Korostikov, Asia-Pacific observer for the Kommersant daily newspaper, in explaining the personal chemistry between Putin and Xi. "But the conflict with the U.S. that both countries are facing made them closer."
Indeed, beyond their grudges with Washington, a shared worldview on global security has helped both sides overcome distrust that once plagued the Soviet-China relationship, which fractured over differing interpretations of communist ideology and border disputes.
Case in point: inclusion of 3,200 Chinese troops alongside 300,000 Russians in the Kremlin's massive Vostok-2018 military training exercise in Russia's Far East last year, according to official sources.
From their perch at the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China now regularly form a global counterweight to the U.S. on thorny issues such as Syria, North Korea and Iran — a point noted by Putin in a statement after meeting with Xi on Wednesday.
"In discussing important international and regional problems, I can say that in most of them, the views of Russia and China are aligned or very close," said the Russian leader.
So, too, increasingly, are their economies.
In the wake of Western sanctions levied over the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin announced Russia would "pivot" its economy toward Asia.
Russian officials now tout trade deals with China worth more than $100 billion annually — making China Russia's top trading partner — as proof Russia has weathered the storm. Russia is only 10th on China's list, with the United States first.
Xi also will appear alongside Putin at the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on Friday. While the Chinese delegation to the event is 1,000 strong, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Huntsman Jr., is boycotting the event over the detention of an American businessman in Moscow.
Yet, in all likelihood, the lasting image of the state visit will prove to be Ru Yi and Ding Ding, two giant pandas from China's Sichuan province that Xi gifted on loan to the Moscow Zoo for the next 15 years.
With the gesture, Xi tapped into China's famed panda diplomacy — the use of furry diplomatic gifts to help repair relationships or forge ties anew.
It certainly seemed to have the desired effect on the Russian leader.
"When we talk of pandas," noted Putin, "we always end up with a smile on our faces."