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Vladimir Putin

Why Xi Jinping’s the man for me: Vladimir Putin highlights birthday party with ‘good friend’ from China as sign of growing closeness

Russian strongman’s account of how the pair ‘drank a shot and sliced sausages’ conveniently omits other leaders whose relationship with Moscow is more distant

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 June, 2018, 7:57pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 June, 2018, 6:27am

Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Xi Jinping was the only world leader who celebrated his birthday in an effusive interview with Chinese state television that signifies the growing closeness between the two sides.

In his description of the time he “sliced some sausage” and drank vodka with his Chinese counterpart the Russian president had apparently forgotten – or perhaps overlooked – the fact that earlier the same day other world leaders had sung “happy birthday” to him at an Asia-Pacific summit.

Putin’s interview was broadcast by CCTV on Wednesday ahead of a visit to China this weekend. His comments come at a time when Xi is edging closer to the authoritarian Russian leader as Beijing’s relations with the United States become increasingly fraught.

Their increasingly tight-knit relations are also a result of Donald Trump’s aggressive and capricious foreign policy, as they put aside their own differences to stress their common interests in geopolitics and security.

Putin who is attending the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Qingdao this weekend, was keen to heap praise on Xi, calling the Chinese leader a “reliable partner and good friend” and boasting about their special personal rapport.

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“I won’t hide it, we had a shot of vodka and sliced some sausage,” he said in the interview. “We finished the day’s work and he celebrated my birthday with me. This might seem irrelevant, but to talk about President Xi, this is where I would like to start.”

Putin was reminiscing about an Asia-Pacific leaders' summit in Bali, Indonesia in October 2013 during which he celebrated his 61st birthday.

Russian state news agency ITAR-TASS reported that at a late-night meeting Xi had presented Putin with a cake while the Russian leader pulled out a bottle of vodka for a toast. The two then discussed their fathers’ experiences in the second world war over shots and sandwiches.

“I’ve never established such relations or made such arrangements with any other foreign colleague, but I did it with President Xi,” Putin told CCTV in the interview filmed in the Kremlin on May 31.

In fact, he was forgetting a lot of other people, especially the former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Earlier that day in a conference room, Yudhoyono had strummed a guitar and sang Happy Birthday To You to Putin, as a smiling crowd, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former South Korean president Park Geun-hye, clapped along.

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Since rising to power in 2012, Xi has visited Moscow more than any other capital city in the world and met Putin more than 20 times.

During his last trip in July, Xi was awarded Russia’s highest state order, the Order of St Andrew, with Putin hanging an elaborate medallion around his neck.

Now, the two neighbours are in need of each other more than ever as both find their relationship with United States becoming increasingly fraught, not least because of the long-running investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged links with Moscow.

In turn, the threat of a trade war and geopolitical questions such as the South China Sea and Korea have strained Beijing’s relations with Washington.

Last month, Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan, a close ally of Xi, visited St Petersburg, where he vowed to deepen cooperation with Russia and made a veiled attack on US protectionism.

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China and Russia are also strengthening their economic relationship.

Two-way trade reached US$84 billion last year, up 20 per cent from 2016, and the two sides have 73 cooperation projects worth more than US$100 million.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is also a symbol of their cooperation. The regional bloc, led by Moscow and Beijing, is seen by many as a counterweight to the dominant presence of the US and its regional allies.

The Russian strongman leader is also popular in China. While many in the West have mocked staged photo opportunities that show him riding shirtless on a horse, shooting guns, swimming in freezing lakes or toppling his judo opponents, some Chinese internet users have extolled these as symbols of manliness.