Eyeing Kremlin return, Putin visits China

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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin travels to China Tuesday for talks likely to focus on a gas deal mired in disagreement, on his first trip abroad since he declared a planned Kremlin comeback.

Putin will be accompanied by a 160-member delegation including prominent tycoons for his two-day visit, during which he will meet his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao.

Observers say Putin's trip -- which follows last month's announcement that he plans to reclaim the presidency -- is symbolic and could see him lay out his foreign policy priorities for years to come.

The two countries, former Cold War allies, hope to seal some 20 business agreements worth $7 billion, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov told the Kommersant daily.

But plans to pump Russian gas to China are expected to top the agenda. Russia is the world's largest energy producer; China the largest energy consumer.

Russian gas giant Gazprom and China National Petroleum Company signed a framework agreement in 2009 that could eventually see almost 70 billion cubic metres of Russian gas sent to China annually for the next 30 years.

However a firm contract has so far proved elusive as talks have become bogged down in pricing disagreements. Hu's visit to Moscow in June delivered no breakthrough.

China became Russia's top trading partner for the first time last year and the two countries want to nearly double trade to $100 billion by 2015 and then to $200 billion by 2020.

Putin has paid frequent visits to China in his capacity as president and prime minister since he took power in 1999.

But some experts say that while Beijing and Moscow are often viewed as partners in international diplomacy, there is limited trust between them.

The Stockholm-based International Peace Research Institute said in a report last week that China's dependence on Russia for arms and energy imports had declined and Moscow's position when dealing with Beijing had weakened.

It pointed out that China had found other partners in the oil and gas sectors in the Middle East, Africa or central Asia.

China's foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Monday that "new progress and achievements" had been made in energy talks, but did not specify whether he was referring to the major gas agreement.

He said energy negotiators on both sides had a working meeting on Monday ahead of Putin's arrival.

China's vice premier Wang Qishan and state councillor Liu Yandong met Zhukov to "exchange views on how to further deepen bilateral energy cooperation", the spokesman said.

© 2011 AFP

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