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Putin's China visit shows warming ties between neighboring giants

The historically tense relationship has warmed in recent years, leading to flourishing bilateral trade. Vladimir Putin will be in Beijing Tuesday to discuss everything from trade, to Iran's nuclear program, to Syria's bloody war.

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"We have friendly relations with Syria spanning many years, but we do not support either of the sides generating the threat of a civil war," Putin said in his meeting with Ms. Merkel on June 1, according to his official Kremlin website. "Today, we already see the emerging elements of a civil war. This is highly dangerous. Annan is the former Secretary General of the UN and a very experienced person. I think that we must all focus on helping him. Our goal is to stop the violence, regardless of who is perpetuating it."

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That tracks closely with the official Chinese position. "At present, the realistic plan for resolving the Syrian issue remains Annan's six points and his peace plan," The People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, wrote in an official commentary.

But the important news that will probably be overshadowed by the Syria controversy is the enormous growth in Russia-China economic relations. Bilateral trade topped $80 billion last year, making China Russia's biggest trading partner, and is expected to hit $100 billion by 2015. The main trade items remain Russian arms, energy, and engineering goods and Chinese consumer products. 

According to Mr. Markov, Russia and China are increasingly eschewing use of the US dollar and using their own currencies to conduct bilateral trade.

"This is a growing trend, to denote deals in yuan or rubles, instead of going via the dollar as in the past, and it reflects growing confidence in our partnership," he says.

Accompanying Putin to Beijing will be the chief of state-owned Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin, who is pushing an ambitious, multibillion-dollar, decade-long project to build a Russian wide-gauge rail line, dubbed the "Eurasian land bridge," between Vienna, Austria, and the Russian Pacific far east, which would make possible rapid and direct land transport between Western Europe and East Asia for the first time, even for heavy cargo. Russia hopes to eventually extend the rail link deep into China and perhaps as far as Seoul, South Korea, if the perennial political crisis with North Korea can be settled.

But many Russian experts say the current improvements in the Russia-China relationship are deceptively impressive, and would not be so notable if Russia's ties with the West were not so troubled by political disputes and clouded by financial crisis in Europe.

"In Russia's foreign policy doctrine, China is the third priority, after the post-Soviet region and the European Union," says Dmitry Babich, an expert with the official RIA-Novosti news agency. 

"Russia and China have lots of differences and problems in their relationship; the surface appearance that things are going so well between them just now is a clear indication that our European policy is facing failure," he adds.

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