China’s panda diplomacy puts a smile on ‘best friend’ Putin’s face

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (2-R) attend an official ceremony to hand over two giant pandas from China to the Moscow Zoo, in Moscow, Russia, 05 June 2019. [Kremlin pool/EPA/EFE]

Chinese President Xi Jinping presented two pandas to Moscow’s zoo at a ceremony with Vladimir Putin on Wednesday (5 June), in a gesture the Russian president described as a sign of deepening trust and respect between the two powers.

Xi unveiled the pandas – Ru Yi and Ding Ding – after talks with Putin whom he called his “best friend” at the start of a three-day visit that will see him attend Russia’s flagship economic forum in St Petersburg later this week.

The pandas, who could be seen chomping bamboo as Xi and Putin arrived, will living in a specially built enclosure. Beijing has loaned them to Moscow for 15 years as part of a joint research project.

Xi’s visit to Russia comes with Moscow’s ties with the West at post-Cold War lows and with Beijing’s relations with the United States strained over a trade war. Both powers are eager to show they are strengthening ties.

The leaders promised to deepen military technical cooperation at talks in Moscow, while Russian and Chinese businesses signed an array of deals.

“Over the past six years we have met almost 30 times … Putin is my best friend and a good colleague,” Xi said in comments published on the Kremlin’s website.

Standing alongside Xi after the talks, Putin thanked China for entrusting the pandas to Moscow.

“This is a gesture of particular respect and trust in Russia. When we talk about pandas, we always end up with a smile on our faces. We accept this gift with great respect and gratitude,” Putin said.

“These animals are a national symbol for China, and we greatly value this gesture of friendship,” he said.

The pandas were given to Russia at the end of April after Putin visited Beijing, but were only unveiled to the public on Wednesday.

‘Russian Davos’

Xi and Putin are due on Thursday to attend the opening of the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum.

Once dubbed the “Russian Davos” when the country’s economy was booming, the forum has become a showpiece where Russia strives to show its openness to outside investment despite a tense business climate and a crisis in relations with the West.

Running until Saturday, this year’s forum in Putin’s native city is expected to draw some 17,000 participants, according to the Kremlin, the same number as last year.

The event comes as the recovery of the Russian economy has slowed considerably since the beginning of this year.

After two years of recession — caused by a fall in oil prices and sanctions for its role in the Ukraine crisis — Russia returned to growth in 2017. But its economy grew by only 0.5% in the first quarter of this year.

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