Russia hosts China's 'premier-in-waiting'

Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev were set Friday to host a top Chinese official who is tipped to become premier amid transitions of power in both countries.

Putin, who will return to the Kremlin for a historic third term on May 7, and Medvedev, set to become premier in a job swap with his mentor, will host Vice Prime Minister Li Keqiang for political and economic talks, officials said.

"Political changes in China and Russia do not have any effect whatsoever on bilateral ties," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told AFP. He declined to go into specifics of the upcoming talks.

Russia, the world's largest energy producer, and China, the world's largest energy consumer, set much store by their bilateral ties.

Putin has paid frequent visits to China in his capacity as president and prime minister since he took power in 1999.

His first trip abroad since he announced his Kremlin comeback was to China last October.

Putin's next China visit is set for June, one of his first foreign trips upon reclaiming his old presidential job, the Russian foreign ministry said on Thursday.

"During the talks the sides are planning to exchange opinions on the pressing issues of the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership," the Kremlin said in a statement, using the phrase it reserves for close friends and allies.

The Kommersant broadsheet reported in February that Putin had earlier refused to host Li due to his busy agenda ahead of parliamentary and presidential polls, putting a strain on bilateral ties.

The newspaper, citing sources in the Russian-Chinese inter-governmental commission, the Russian foreign ministry and the government, said Li had wanted to visit Russia in February ahead of his expected replacement of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

The newspaper said Li was forced to postpone the visit when the Russian government indicated that Putin would not be available to host him due to his busy agenda.

Putin's spokesman Peskov declined to confirm the report on Friday.

A new generation of leaders must take over the reins of power in China within a year.

President Hu Jintao will end his second five-year term as party head this year, while Li is expected to take over from Wen, who will resign in 2013.


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