Vladimir Putin was "too busy" to attend the G8 summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama in Camp David last month, but the Russian President made it clear Tuesday that he has plenty of time for his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao. And the feeling is mutual.
The two men – who lead countries with large nuclear arsenals and veto powers at the United Nations Security Council – stood side-by-side in the Great Hall of the People and vowed, in Mr. Hu's words, to "set the global political and economic order in a more fair and rational direction." It was Mr. Putin's first major state visit since his return to the Kremlin last month.
No one is calling it an alliance yet, but there's clearly a new diplomatic axis between Moscow and Beijing, one that puts the "stability" of governments and societies ahead of human rights and democracy, and harsh realpolitik ahead of lofty principles. Mr. Putin and Mr. Hu are explicitly seeking an end to a world where the United States has a free hand to set the agenda in foreign affairs and act as it wills.
"Russia and China are staunch supporters of a multipolar world and they try to push all systems of international relations toward a multipolar world," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
What Mr. Putin and Mr. Hu call their "strategic partnership" has already prevented the Security Council from adopting stronger measures against the Syrian government and its violent crackdown of the 15-month uprising there. Russia and China have also supported Iran against international pressure over its nuclear program, and lent a sympathetic ear to North Korea's Kim dynasty when no one else will.
"This partnership is … something needed in today's world," Mr. Putin wrote in an editorial that appeared in yesterday's People's Daily, the official bugle of China's ruling Communist Party.
Mr. Putin and Mr. Hu made clear Tuesday they will continue to oppose any international action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, despite the international outcry over the massacres uncovered in Houla and other towns.
"On the Syrian issue, the two heads of state said the international community should continue to support … special envoy [Kofi] Annan's mediation efforts and the U.N. monitoring mission, to promote a political solution to the problem in Syria," Chinese state television said after Mr. Hu and Mr. Putin met.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a "political transition" was needed in Syria to avoid the country falling into all-out civil war. "We believe there is a way forward and we are ready to pursue that. And we invite the Russians and the Chinese to be part of the solution," she said, speaking in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which fought and lost a brief war with Russia four years ago.
In a sign of the trust that exists between the Chinese and Russian governments, the opening of the meeting between Mr. Putin and a relaxed-looking Mr. Hu was shown live on China's official CCTV network, a risk not taken when Western leaders – who might go off script and raise uncomfortable topics like China's treatment of political dissidents or ethnic minorities – visit Beijing.
Later, the two leaders stood together as they made statements to Russian and Chinese journalists that were also televised live. No questions were asked and no journalists from other countries were allowed to attend.
On Wednesday, Mr. Putin will meet Vice-President Xi Jinping, the man slated to succeed Mr. Hu during China's once-a-decade power transfer that begins this fall.
During their televised remarks, Mr. Putin and Mr. Hu talked up the importance of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization, a six-country security body that holds its annual summit later this week in Beijing. Though the SCO – which also includes the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia sitting as observer states – is a non-military alliance, some Western strategists view the grouping as a potential rival to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
"We both believe that we should promote our co-operation on regional and international issues, to preserve our interests and the peace and stability of the world," Mr. Hu said. He went on to say that China and Russia should use "all platforms and channels" to expand their military ties.
In his People's Daily editorial, Mr. Putin mentioned the crises in Syria, Iran and North Korea and said Beijing and Moscow "share very similar positions on all of these issues, positions based on the principles of responsibility, commitment to the basic values of international law, and unconditional mutual respect for each other's interests."
For both sides, their interests include bringing a halt to the wave of democratic uprisings that moved across the Middle East before ebbing in Syria. Mr. Putin's own rule has been challenged in recent months by unprecedented protests during the election campaign that saw him returned to the presidency he held from 2000 to 2008 after four years away in the prime minister's post. Mr. Hu's Communist Party, meanwhile, keeps a tight lid on any political dissent.
Both countries view the "Arab Spring" as a U.S.-inspired effort to topple regimes it doesn't like, and Mr. Putin has directly accused Washington of inciting the protests against his re-election. "Being too busy might have been a factor in why Putin didn't go to America [for the G8], but it's not the only reason he didn't go there," said Wu Hongwei, a Russia expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Mr. Putin "feels comfortable with dictators," offered Andrei Piontkovsky, a veteran Russian political analyst who joined the demonstrations in Moscow earlier this year. "They don't lecture him on democracy and human rights."
Despite the growing friendship between Beijing and Moscow, the two sides failed to sign an anticipated 30-year pact that would see resource-rich Russia supply energy-hungry China with natural gas. The stumbling block remains price: Russia wants China to pay $400 per thousand cubic metres, the same price its European customers. China, meanwhile, is holding out for a price closer to the $250 that it pays to Central Asian suppliers.
Mr. Putin's embrace of China is part of his push to establish Russia as a force in the Asia-Pacific region, where it now plays only a minor role despite its long border with China and its Pacific Ocean coastline. Mr. Putin plays host to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in September in the port of Vladivostok. It will be the first time that Russia, whose capital, Moscow, is the largest city in Europe, will host the annual gathering of 21 countries from around East Asia and the Pacific Rim.
In what appears to be a tit-for-tat snub, Mr. Obama has already said he will miss the APEC meeting in Vladivostok because he'll be too busy with his own re-election campaign.