By Ben Blanchard and Thomas Grove
BEIJING/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Increasingly isolated by the West over Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin will hope for a sympathetic ear on a visit next week to China, which is also being more assertive in its territorial disputes with smaller neighbors.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has made a big public show of underscoring the importance of ties with Russia, and Moscow was the first capital he visited after assuming the presidency last year. Xi also attended the Winter Olympics in Sochi at Putin's invitation.
But, while the two see eye to eye on many international diplomatic issues, including the conflict in Syria, and generally vote as one on the United Nations Security Council, China has not proved so willing to support Russia on Ukraine.
Beijing has adopted a cautious response to that crisis, not wanting to alienate a key ally, and not commenting directly on a referendum in which Crimea voted overwhelmingly to join Russia, lest it set a precedent for its own restive regions, like Tibet.
China has also said, though, it would like to continue to develop "friendly cooperation" with Ukraine, and respects the ex-Soviet state's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Zhang Deguang, honorary chairman of the Foreign Ministry-backed China Foundation for International Studies and a former Chinese ambassador to Russia, said China would not want Ukraine overshadowing Putin's two-day visit, which begins in Shanghai on Tuesday.
"The aim of this visit is not to discuss the Ukraine issue," Zhang told Reuters. "You can't describe China's position (on Ukraine) as one of support for Russia or lack of support for Russia. It's a very complex issue and China has not taken sides."
SYMPATHY, NOT SUPPORT?
Underscoring China's dilemma over Ukraine, it has yet to explicitly state in public whether it recognizes either Ukraine's new government, or the referendum in Crimea.
Vasily Kashin, an expert on Russia-China relations at CAST, a Moscow-based defense think-tank, said Russia is likely to try to use Putin's trip to boost ties with China at a time when relations with the West are strained by sanctions over Ukraine.
"The prospects of our relations with the West are unclear because of everything happening around Ukraine. We are facing economic pressure and pressure in security areas and sanctions," Kashin said. "The only major economic power that is independent from the U.S. and has stated support for Russia vis a vis sanctions is China."
Even if he doesn't get an outright public show of support from Xi on Ukraine, Putin could find a sympathetic ear in China.
"I think Putin does hope to win China's support on the Ukraine issue. Because on this topic the United States, the West, have joined up to create trouble in Ukraine which is aimed at Russia. And they are not only aiming at Russia," Liu Guchang, another former ambassador to Russia and a member of an advisory committee for the foreign ministry, told Reuters.
"This is a global strategy of the United States and the West, to push for a Cold War. Once they are done with Russia, they will look to Central Asia and then China, using Japan."
Kashin said Xi and Putin are expected to talk about arms deals, as well as Moscow possibly giving Beijing a 'favored status' on arms sales, lifting export restrictions for China that apply to most arms exports for other countries. Many western governments have at least partly cut their military cooperation with Moscow.
Mutual trade between China and Russia has more than doubled in five years, topping $89 billion in 2013, though the trade volume is still about five times smaller than Russia's with the European Union, and far smaller than China's trade with the United States.
The visit could finally see a deal for Russia's top producer Gazprom to pump gas to China, wrapping up a decade of talks in which price has been the main obstacle.
Europe's plans to reduce its dependence on Russian energy as the Ukraine crisis threatens supplies have spurred efforts by Gazprom to finalize a deal this month.
A deal, seen as vital if Russia is to be a big player in Asian gas markets, could see Gazprom make price concessions, people in the industry have said, hoping China will agree to pay $10-$11 per mmBtu (million British thermal units). China is believed to pay $9 per mmBtu to Turkmenistan, the Central Asian state that beat Gazprom to the Chinese market.
"If there is time during Putin's visit to China, we'll strive to have the relevant companies sign relevant natural gas cooperative agreements with the two countries' heads of state as witnesses," Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping said at a briefing on Thursday. "Currently, the main differences between the two sides are still over the issue of natural gas prices."
Chinese oil industry officials remain cool, however, as the growing prospect of North American gas exports to Asia from the shale revolution, and increased Turkmen gas production, means China is in a position to bide its time and also seek more access to Russia's upstream assets.
"Unless Russia makes substantial changes in policies like allowing China more participation in Russia's upstream oil and gas exploration, or involving Chinese in building the Russian part of the gas pipelines, there won't be too much incentive for
CNPC (state-run China National Petroleum Corp) to clinch a deal," said Chen Weidong, head of energy research at China National Offshore Co, the parent of CNOOC Ltd.
(Additional reporting by Chen Aizhu and Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)