China and Russia: Keep faith in Annan peace plan

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, arrives in Beijing today to hold talks with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao ahead of a regional summit.

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BEIJING // The leaders of Russia and China urged the international community to keep faith in Kofi Annan's road map for peace in Syria.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, arrived in Beijing today and held talks with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao ahead of a regional summit.

Mr Putin's three-day visit to Beijing comes after a weekend in which more than 80 Syrian army soldiers were reported to have been killed by rebels.

"On the Syrian issue, the two heads of state said the international community should continue to support the joint Arab League/UN Special Envoy Annan's mediation efforts and the UN monitoring mission, to promote a political solution to the problem in Syria," Chinese state television reported after a meeting between Mr Hu and Mr Putin.

Despite the escalating violence, Liu Weimin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, told journalists yesterday that both China and Russia "oppose external intervention in Syria and oppose regime change by force".

"We believe ultimately the Syrian issue should be properly addressed through consultation among different parties in Syria," he added.

"This is in the fundamental interests of the Syrian people. China and Russia have been playing, in their own way, a positive role on the Syrian issue."

China has backed Russia's opposition to measures that could hasten the overthrow of Bashar Al Assad's regime, for which Moscow is the main arms supplier, and both countries have twice vetoed UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian authorities' crackdown on opponents.

Instead, they have said the peace plan brokered by Mr Annan offers the best chance to end the turmoil that has engulfed Syria for 15 months.

The plan, however, appears to be on the verge of collapse, with the rebel Free Syrian Army declaring it was no longer adhering to an agreed ceasefire.

The visit by Mr Putin, his first to China since taking over the presidency again last month, coincides with a gathering, starting tomorrow and continuing on Thursday, of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. This six-member regional bloc, headed by Russia and China, includes several former Soviet states and is seen by analysts as being aimed at trying to stem US influence in the region.

Among those countries attending as an observer will be Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is likely to find a sympathetic ear as Beijing and Moscow have opposed sanctions aimed at curtailing Tehran's nuclear programme.

With Russia and China both concerned about the spectre of political instability at home, analysts say the two countries have been brought closer together by the Arab Spring after a decade in which, under Mr Putin, ties had already strengthened.

"Both countries are not happy to see the uprisings and the collapse of those old regimes and the measures taken by western powers," said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"So on all these issues China, and Russia have demonstrated very similar positions in terms of how they regard the turmoil and how external forces have reacted and behaved."

He said the bilateral relationship "may further evolve towards a more solid strategic partnership" as "a countermeasure against American global dominance and the dominant American security role in the Asia Pacific".

"We have seen Russia and China have been engaged in fairly large-scale military exercises. Both countries want to deepen their strategic partnership," he said.

Chinese-Russian trade swelled to US$84 billion (Dh308.5bn) last year, with the two countries aiming to increase the total to $100 billion by 2015 and $200 billion by 2020.

While there are several signs of an increasing closeness between Beijing and Moscow, the two sides are still in dispute over the price of gas that will be sent via pipeline from Russia to China, a project that is set to launch in 2015.

As well as meeting Mr Hu, Mr Putin is holding talks with Xi Jinping, China's vice president and the likely future president, and Li Keqiang, the senior vice premier expected to replace Wen Jiabao as premier.

* With additional reporting by Reuters