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Putin in trade push on final day of China trip

Asia
 Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with China’s President Xi Jinping at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 20, 2023. [AFP]

Russian leader Vladimir Putin was in the northeastern city of Harbin on Friday, the final day of a visit aiming to promote crucial trade with China and win greater support for his war effort in Ukraine.

Putin arrived Thursday on his first trip abroad since his March re-election, meeting President Xi Jinping for talks in which the leaders framed their nations' ties as a stabilising force in a chaotic world.

China and Russia's strategic partnership has only grown closer since the invasion of Ukraine, and Beijing has rebuffed Western claims that it is aiding Moscow's war effort.

China has also offered a critical lifeline to Russia's isolated economy, with trade booming since the invasion and hitting $240 billion in 2023, according to Chinese customs figures.

Putin's trip to Harbin is part of efforts to enhance that economic relationship.

Lying just a few hundred kilometres from the border with Russia, the city has long served as a key hub for cross-border trade and cultural exchange.

The Russian president will attend the opening ceremony of a Russia-China trade expo on Friday, Moscow's state news agency TASS reported, and will be accompanied by Han Zheng, China's vice president.

Putin will hold a press conference with Russian media later in the day.

Western criticism

The Russian leader's arrival came hours after he hailed his country's troops for advancing on "all fronts" on the battlefield in Ukraine, following a major new ground assault.

Western countries have meanwhile been mounting pressure on China to cut off support for Russia's economy.

After Washington vowed to go after financial institutions that facilitate Moscow, Chinese exports to Russia dipped in March and April, down from a surge early in the year.

In a statement to the media following talks with Putin, Xi said the two sides agreed on the need for a "political solution" to resolving the war.

The two men later ditched their ties for a less formal meeting over tea at the palatial Zhongnanhai leadership compound.

China's state broadcaster aired footage of Xi embracing Putin following their talks, which saw the Chinese leader express support for an "international peace conference recognized by Russia and Ukraine".

There are no indications Moscow and Kyiv are prepared to engage in direct talks, which Ukraine says would only be used by Russia to buy time to prepare for a new assault.

Hours after Xi and Putin met, US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said that China couldn't "have its cake and eat it too" with regard to the West and Moscow.

"It can't have it both ways and want to have (better) relationships with Europe and other countries while simultaneously continuing to fuel the biggest threat to European security in a long time," Patel said, referring to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

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