Vladimir Putin visits China on Tuesday in his first foreign trip since revealing plans to reclaim Russia's presidency, addressing a challenging relationship with a giant neighbour whose growth is both an opportunity and a potential threat for Moscow.
Beneath talk of strategic relations and shared stands on world affairs, wrangling over a gas pact worth a potential $1-trillion points up the tough issues Mr. Putin will confront in dealing with Russia's far more populous, faster growing neighbour.
China, facing its own leadership transition next year, may try to gauge Mr. Putin's plans for what could be 12 years at the helm of a country whose natural resources and nuclear arms make it a factor in Beijing's economic and geopolitical strategies.
"The significance of this trip exceeds that of a normal prime minister-level visit," said Zhao Huasheng, director at the Centre for Russia and Central Asia Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University.
His meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will feature warm affirmations of friendship and solidarity on big global issues between two countries that often move in lockstep to counter the United States and Europe.
Their double veto last week of a European-drafted, U.S.-backed UN Security Council resolution to condemn Syria's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters was a warning against Western meddling in their own countries and others worldwide.
Mr. Putin may use the trip to show the West an emphasis on China as Russia's geopolitical partner and a customer for its energy.
He will also likely seek to resolve the price disagreements that have prevented Russia nailing down a 30-year deal to supply China with up to 68 billion cubic metres of gas per year.
As he prepares for what could be two six-year terms as president, "the risks from China's growth will be watched more closely than the opportunities," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
At an investor conference on Thursday, Mr. Putin used a joke to play down the challenge posed by China's faster growth after TPG Capital co-founder David Bonderman outlined China's path to becoming the world's largest economy.
"He got me worried. He said that the United States is so far the world's biggest economy, but China will undoubtedly take over. So we now need to keep our foreign currency reserves in yuan while the Chinese will keep them in dollars," Mr. Putin said.
"That will be an interesting Russian doll."
Reuters New Agency