BEIJING – Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on the Sochi Winter Olympics and hailed their growing ties, which frequently challenge Western domination of global affairs.
The two men met Thursday in the southern Russian city where Xi was to attend the games' opening ceremony on Friday night.
"The Sochi games are a symbol of how Russia is heading toward strength and prosperity," Xi told Putin, according to Chinese state media.
Pointing particularly to cooperation on Syria, where the two countries have been accused of blocking sanctions aimed at the Assad regime, Xi said such efforts should be further encouraged.
"China and Russia should from this day forward continue deepening our consultations and cooperation on major international issues and together maintain world and regional peace, security and stability," Xi said.
Chinese state media have worked hard to portray the visit as a sign of warming relations between the neighbors and former Communist rivals, splashing pictures of the two men shaking hands across Friday's front pages of the flagship People's Daily and other newspapers.
Russia has been a focus of Xi's foreign policy and he pointedly made it his first foreign destination after taking over as president last March.
Russia and China have frequently joined forces in the United Nations and elsewhere to challenge Western leadership in global affairs.
They have rejected criticisms of their stance on Syria, but have also worked hard to be portrayed as constructive on the issue, volunteering to help with the disposal of Syrian nuclear weapons.
Chinese state media said the two leaders later held a video conference call with the commanders of Russian and Chinese navy ships that escorted Norwegian and Danish cargo vessels carrying chemical weapons materials on Jan. 7 and Jan. 27 to a specially fitted U.S. ship for on-board destruction.
The two countries also dominate the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group dedicated in part to curbing American influence in Central Asia. Russia is also an increasingly important supplier of oil and gas to China's economy, the world's second largest.
Xi and Putin also agreed to hold joint commemorations next year of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, underscoring China's reliance on Russian support in its campaign to isolate Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Japanese leader Shinzo Abe was also attending the opening ceremony and is to meet with Putin on Saturday.
It will be the fifth meeting between the two leaders in the past year, underscoring Abe's efforts to broaden Japan's diplomatic ties. Japan hopes a closer relationship will help foster economic and security relations as well as resolve a long-standing territorial dispute that has prevented the two nations from signing a peace treaty officially ending their World War II hostilities.
China has ruled out a meeting between Xi and Abe and state media have ignored the Japanese leader's presence in Sochi.
Despite warm diplomatic ties, China-Russia trade has lagged, hitting $89.2 billion last year, up just 1.1 percent from the year before. Putin predicted that figure would grow to $100 billion in 2015 — still a drop in the bucket in terms of China's overall trade: its surplus with the U.S. alone hit $318 billion last year.
And while their border clashes of the 1960s and 1970s are well in the past, mutual distrust remains. Moscow is wary of China's growing sway in Central Asia — Russia's traditional sphere of influence — while China sees Russia playing it off against Japan for access to energy supplies.
In an editorial Friday, the official Global Times newspaper pointed to those in Russia who talk up the "China threat," while noting that some Chinese constantly remind the public that Moscow seized large chunks of Chinese territory during the declining years of the Qing Dynasty.
"In fact, things haven't always been smooth sailing between China and Russia," the newspaper said.