In what is seen as the first sign of China's exasperation over Russia's Ukraine war, Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday raised "questions and concerns" over the conflict in his meeting here with Russian President Vladimir Putin who thanked Beijing for its "balanced position" on the crisis.
This is perhaps for the first time in over six months of Russia's Ukraine war, China, which remained a steadfast ally of Moscow and declined to condemn the invasion, aired its concerns over Putin’s move.
"We highly value the balanced position of our Chinese friends when it comes to the Ukraine crisis," Putin said in his opening remarks at the meeting.
"We understand your questions and concerns about this. During today’s meeting, we will of course explain our position,” he was quoted as saying by the Hong Kong based South China Morning Post.
According to Chinese state media, Xi said China is ready to work with Russia in "extending strong support to each other on issues concerning their respective core interests," and to deepen cooperation in "trade, agriculture and interconnectivity."
Xi also said the two countries should make greater efforts to take responsibility in a "chaotic, interweaving world."
Putin said the Russian-Chinese international cooperation can be considered a paragon. The foreign policy tandem of Moscow and Beijing plays a key role in ensuring global and regional stability," he was quoted as saying by Russia's state-owned Tass news agency.
"The world is changing rapidly, but one thing remains unchanged: the friendship between China and Russia, our good - in the full sense of this world - relations of comprehensive strategic partnership, and we continue to strengthen these relations," he said.
"Dear President Putin, my dear and long-time friend, I am very pleased to meet again," Xi said in his remarks.
"Under conditions of a global pandemic we continue to maintain effective strategic contacts, particularly through phone calls," he stressed.
China is ready to work with Russia in extending strong support to each other on issues concerning their respective core interests, Xi said, according to state-run Xinhua news agency.
He called for both sides to strengthen coordination within the SCO, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, the BRICS and other multilateral mechanisms to promote solidarity and mutual trust among related parties.
For his part, Putin extended Moscow's firm backing to Beijing's "One-China" policy which proclaims that the self-governing island Taiwan is part of mainland China, in the backdrop of US increasing backing to Taipei.
US House speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan recently, becoming the top American leader to visit the island nation, which prompted China to conduct massive military drills around the island.
Russia firmly adheres to the 'One-China' principle and condemns US provocations in Taiwan, Putin said.
"Firmly indeed, we adhere to the 'one-China' principle. We condemn the provocations of the United States and its satellites in the Taiwan Strait," he stressed.
Reunification of Taiwan with the mainland is one of the core issues for China.
Putin added that he had also recently discussed this with Li Zhanshu, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (parliament), with whom he met on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Tass reported.
Xi made his first visit abroad after over two years to Kazakhstan on Wednesday and later he flew to Samarkand on the same day to attend the eight-nation SCO summit. Before meeting Putin, he met most of the Heads of State of the Central Asian countries who are attending the summit.
Launched in Shanghai in June 2001, the SCO has eight full members, including its six founding members, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan joined as full members in 2017.
Coinciding with the Xi-Putin meeting, the Russian defence ministry said on Thursday that the two countries' navies were conducting joint patrols in the Pacific.
Xi and Putin maintained close personal relations in the 10-year tenure of the Chinese leader and Beijing effectively stood by Moscow declining to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, even though it officially asserts that it maintains a neutral stance on the Ukraine issue.
Putin's aide Yury Ushakov said the talks would have special importance given the situation in the world.
According to Ushakov, this meeting is a "long-awaited personal contact," the second one over the period of the coronavirus pandemic.
Their last meeting was when Putin attended the opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games in February, days before Russia attacked Ukraine.
The most recent phone call of the Russian and Chinese leaders was in June, when they discussed a wide range of issues, including the development of military and military-technical ties, an expansion of cooperation on the energy, financial and industrial tracks amid the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the West, Ushakov said.
The two leaders pointed out in general that Moscow and Beijing saw eye-to-eye or had close positions on the world stage, the Tass report said.
Ushakov said China drew a "balanced approach" to the Ukrainian crisis, noting that Beijing "states explicitly that it understands the reasons that forced Russia to launch a special military operation against Ukraine.
Putin and Xi Jinping will also discuss the activities of the SCO and a growing role of the organization in international affairs. No joint documents are expected to be signed following the meeting.
Ahead of the Xi-Putin meet, China's top legislator Li Zhanshu said that China fully supported Russia on issues of the country's "core interest" raising eyebrows.
"On Russia's core issues or issues of great interest, China expresses full understanding and full support," he told Russian State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin.
"Just like the Ukraine issue now, the United States and NATO had pushed straight to Russia's doorsteps. This involves Russia's national security and the safety of its people's lives. In light of this, China understands that Russia needs to do what is appropriate and is giving coordinated support on multiple fronts," Li added.