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‘Best friends’ Putin, Xi head for St. Petersburg after a bit of ‘panda diplomacy’

China's President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (The Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping are heading off to an important economic conference in St. Petersburg after going to lengths to demonstrate what they called a great “friendship” with a little “panda diplomacy.”

Xi presented two rare pandas to Moscow’s zoo on June 5, an offering Putin called a sign of deepening “trust and respect” between the two countries as they both look to bolster ties in the face of heightened tensions with Washington and the West.

Xi presented the pandas — named Ru Yi and Ding Ding — following talks with Putin, whom he called his “best friend.”

“We accept this gift with huge respect and gratitude. Those animals are a national symbol of China, and we appreciate this token of friendship,” Putin said.

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“This is a gesture of particular respect and trust in Russia. When we talk about pandas, we always end up with a smile on our faces. We accept this gift with great respect and gratitude,” Putin said.

The pandas are being loaned to Russia for 15 years as part of a joint research project and will live in a specially built enclosure.

Xi’s visit comes as Russia attempts to bolster ties with China at a time of highly strained relations with the United States.

Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014 led to a serious rift between Moscow and the West and its subsequent turn toward its eastern neighbor.

Beijing, meanwhile, is embroiled in a major trade war with Washington that includes a series of costly tit-for-tat tariffs.

Xi’s three-day trip to Russia will include a visit to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, which runs June 6-8 in Russia’s second-largest city. Putin will also attend the event.

In addition, several major Russian and Chinese companies signed cooperation agreements during Xi’s visit.

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According to Kremlin data, Russia-China trade increased 25 percent in 2018, reaching a record $108 billion.

Maksim Oreshkin, Russia’s economic development minister, and Chinese Science and Technology Minister Wang Zhigang signed an agreement early on June 6 to establish a research and technology innovation fund worth some $1 billion.

It will be financed by the Russian Direct Investment Fund and the China Investment Corporation, according to the Russian state-run TASS news agency.

In comments published on the Kremlin website, Xi offered effusive praise for his Russian counterpart.

“Over the past six years we have met almost 30 times…Putin is my best friend and a good colleague,” Xi said.

Earlier, Putin told Xi that his visit was a “key event” in relations between the two neighbors, while Xi, who was met with full state honors at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, noted the relationship had withstood “trials and tribulations” over the years.

“Thank you again for your kind invitation to visit Russia,” said Xi. “The relations between Russia and China are developing stably and at the moment are at their peak. Both sides support each other.”

China and Russia have often voted in unison as permanent members of the UN Security Council, aligning their positions in regard to major international crises.

“We confirmed that Russia’s and China’s stances on the key global issues are similar or coincide,” Putin said.

Late on June 5, the two leaders attended a gala concert at the famed Bolshoi Theater, marking the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Moscow and Beijing.