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Putin, Xi meet for high-stakes talks in challenge to West




SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan — Chinese President Xi Jinping told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Thursday that Beijing was willing to work with Moscow as "great powers" during his first trip overseas since the early days of the pandemic.
"China is willing to make efforts with Russia to assume the role of great powers, and play a guiding role to inject stability and positive energy into a world rocked by social turmoil," Xi told Putin during a leaders' summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
The SCO is made up of China, Russia, India, Pakistan and four Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
"Recently, we have been overcoming the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, spoken many times via phone, and kept up effective strategic communications," Xi told Putin.
"We are extremely willing to use this meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to exchange views with you on international and regional issues of common concern," he said.
Xi arrived in Uzbekistan on Wednesday and has held talks with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on "deepening bilateral cooperation" and "regional and international issues of shared interest".
The visit came on the heels of a trip to Kazakhstan, where Xi vowed full support for a country spooked by Russia's invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.
Xi and Putin will be joined by the leaders of India, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran and several other countries for the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in the Uzbek city on Thursday and Friday.
The main summit day will be Friday, but it is a meeting of the Russian and Chinese leaders on Thursday that will be the most closely watched.
And for both leaders, the summit will be a chance to thumb their noses at the West, especially the United States, which has led the charge in imposing sanctions on Russia over Ukraine and angered Beijing with recent shows of support for Taiwan.
“The SCO offers a real alternative to Western-centric organisations,” Kremlin foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov told reporters in Moscow this week.
“All members of the SCO stand for a just world order,” he said, describing the summit as taking place “against the background of large-scale geopolitical changes”.
Tight security, empty streets 
Entry to Samarkand, a city of grand tiled mosques that was one of the hubs of Silk Road trade routes between China and Europe, was restricted in the days ahead of the summit, with its airport shut to commercial flights.
The streets and its famed markets stood largely empty as AFP journalists visited on Wednesday, and schools were to be closed for the two days of the summit.
Security was tight across the city, with a huge police presence on the streets and armoured vehicles parked downtown.
Residents told AFP of their pride in hosting the summit, pointing to Samarkand’s long history as an international crossroads.
“We are proud that so many leaders of various countries are gathering in our city. Samarkand from ancient times was a legendary city,” said 26-year-old Shakhboz Kombarov.
The SCO is not a formal military alliance like NATO or a deeply integrated bloc like the European Union, but its members work together to tackle joint security issues, cooperate militarily and promote trade.
The summit’s main joint session will be on Friday but much of the focus will be on bilateral talks.
As well as Xi, Putin will meet Thursday with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, then on Friday with Indian premier Narendra Modi and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Iran is an SCO observer state and Erdogan has been a key broker in deals between Russia and Ukraine on issues like grain shipments.
‘No-limits’ friendship 
It was not clear who Xi might meet separately, though talks with Modi would be their first since 2019, after relations between China and India turned frosty over deadly fighting in 2020 on their disputed Himalayan border.
Formerly Cold War allies with a tempestuous relationship, China and Russia have drawn closer in recent years as part of what they call a “no-limits” relationship acting as a counterweight to the global dominance of the United States.
Xi and Putin last met in Beijing in early February for the Winter Olympic Games, days before Putin launched the military offensive in Ukraine.
Beijing has not explicitly endorsed Moscow’s military action, but has steadily built economic and strategic ties with Russia over the six months of the conflict, with Xi assuring China’s support of Russian “sovereignty and security”.
Russia has in turn backed China over Taiwan, calling US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island this summer a “clear provocation”.

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